Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is yet another absorbing film by one of the greatest filmmakers of our time, Quentin Tarantino. While it’s not his greatest, it’s certainly entertaining with a fantastic script, outstanding set design, gorgeous camerawork, and terrific performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, whose chemistry makes the film sizzle.
The film is also the most sentimental film Tarantino has ever made, which isn’t surprising considering the auteur is in the twilight of his career. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is essentially a love letter from the writer/director to the golden era of filmmaking, the ’60s — a time when superstars carried films, when everyone had a smoke everywhere, and an innocent period when it wasn’t considered dangerous to give rides to hitchhikers, or to confront strangers making noise in front of your house in the middle of the night.
Of course, this was a few years before Ted Bundy single-handedly changed how the FBI functioned. And right before Charles Manson and his cult sent shockwaves throughout America with the brutal murders of talented young actress Sharon Tate — who happened to be the pregnant wife of filmmaker Roman Polanski — as well as of her friends.
I mention this because Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and the other victims have a supporting role in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. In fact, when development on this film began, it was rumoured to be solely about the Manson murders. However, this being a Tarantino film, it’s another fantasy revision of history, like when Django killed white slavers in Django Unchained (2012) and the Nazis were slaughtered in Inglorious Basterds (2009). Like in those two films, Tarantino’s reimagining of history feels exploitative but undeniably fun. What can I say? While it made me uncomfortable, I couldn’t help but laugh and cheer with the rest of the audience.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a love letter from Quentin Tarantino to the golden era of film-making that was the ’60s
The chilling Manson scenes aside, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is primarily about movie star Rick Dalton and his stuntman — and best friend — Cliff Booth. The duo are played brilliantly by DiCaprio and Pitt, respectively. Pitt plays the stuntman like a confident masculine man of the ’60s who knows he’s incredibly handsome. He also has a dark side that pays off later, and a curious loyalty to his best friend. The bromance of the two makes the film very watchable.
DiCaprio plays an actor past his prime with surprising vulnerability. Initially, when he cries, it feels like a schtick from Tarantino. After all, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood can be very funny in witty Tarantino fashion. But we soon realise that DiCaprio is playing it straight, especially when we consider that Tarantino is retiring because he feels that he has nothing left in the tank.
When DiCaprio loses faith in himself, he hits rock bottom. But then he motivates himself for one last great scene. And it’s a spectacular performance. As if it’s a reflection of Tarantino’s goal to make one last great film after Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Like any Tarantino film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has its share of flaws. The biggest one is the pacing. On occasion, the film has a sudden voice-over to explain the story, because Tarantino didn’t know what else to do. There are also the usual Tarantino quirks. For example, the film has a few self-indulgent scenes of exposition. Also, in typical Tarantino fashion, the story isn’t about anything at all, but more a collection of great sequences. In a world where films rigidly follow three acts, the organic flow of Tarantino’s film is a breath of fresh air. With Tarantino expected to do one final film, one hopes that it will be his best. Even if it’s his worst film, it’ll probably be better than most films released that year.
Rated R for language, some strong graphic violence, drug use, and sexual references
Published in Dawn, ICON, August 4th, 2019