ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD

Since he releases films so sporadically, I’m happy I’m finally able to talk about Quentin Tarantino, as he’s no doubt my favorite director and screenwriter ever. I love his style, his wit, his dark comedy, his over the top characters, his hip dialogue… I could really go on and on. Each film of his is a delicious treat for me, like I’m invited into this weird guy’s brain to see what worlds and characters he can envision. He’s received some flak for not really evolving as a filmmaker and indulging in excess and violence, but that’s what I love about him. You always know what you’re going to get, but I’ll always accept filmmakers stepping out of their comfort zone. 

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, the year is 1969 and famous television and film actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is feeling a bit washed up and down in the dumps. He confides in his close friend and stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who is also having struggles with his career. To make matters worse, hot new movie star Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) has just moved in next door to Rick, just making him feel more inadequate. As the characters go throughout their lives, there’s a crazy, murderous cult lurking throughout Los Angeles. One known as the Manson Family. 

When you go into a Tarantino film, you can expect two types of narratives: non-linear, character driven pieces with thin plots, or a simpler, more straightforward narrative. This is definitely the former, feeling a lot like Pulp FictionDeath Proof, and Inglourious Basterds. There’s not really a plot here. Just a couple days in the lives of these various characters. It only takes place over three days, two consecutive ones and one six months later, where we get to really explore these characters and the world they live in. Like the films mentioned above, the two separate story lines of Dalton/Booth and Sharon Tate are separate from each other and don’t really intersect until the end. It doesn’t seem like Tate means much in the overall narrative, but when everything resolves at the end, it all makes sense. Since the plot is thin and generally directionless, it does make you question why some sequences are necessary, but this a character piece first and foremost. Character driven films don’t really need an overarching plot or high stakes to be interesting. Robbie is absolutely adorable as Tate, too. She was bubbly, naïve, sweet, and charming, all of that conveyed with few scenes and little dialogue. Tate is the main heart and soul of the film, which is due to Robbie’s performance. It felt like Tarantino didn’t want to just make a love letter to Hollywood, but a love letter to Sharon Tate: a relic of an era who was taken away far too soon. Since she’s a main character, Charles Manson and his “family” do have a few scenes and are important to the plot, but they’re really just a backdrop to further flesh out the world.

This is easily Tarantino’s most mature film since Jackie Brown. He can’t help his ultraviolent sensibilities during the last half hour (hey, I’m not complaining), but the entire film feels very melancholic and solemn. This feels like the least-funniest of his work, with a lot of the humor only coming from Pitt’s performance. Tarantino isn’t occupied with making the characters here hip and cool, but like real, breathing people. Sharon Tate, Steve McQueen, Bruce Lee, and others all obviously existed, but Dalton and Booth are so well developed and acted that they may have well as actually existed too. As actors like Samuel L. Jackson, John Travolta, Tim Roth, Christoph Waltz, and many others show, I think Tarantino has an incredible talent at bringing the best performances possible out of his actors. I’m not the biggest Brad Pitt fan, but I think he can be a terrific character actor who I loved in both this and Inglourious Basterds. He has terrific chemistry with DiCaprio and you can really sense their deep friendship and professional relationship with each other. DiCaprio gets far more to work with in the drama side, with many lengthy scenes delving into the acting method. There’s one long sequence in particular where Dalton shoots a television show, which is basically a show within the movie, but it’s done in a way like we’re actually watching the finished product and not from behind the scenes. It’s interesting because it adds multiple layers to DiCaprio’s acting, as he’s not just playing Dalton, but playing Dalton trying to play another character and struggling. It’s an immense display of his talents. 

The biggest character in the film is the city of Los Angeles itself. This isn’t supposed to be your typical narrative, but a snapshot into the lives of these people in Hollywood in the 60’s. From the opening scene, I was completely immersed in the world. This doesn’t feel like your usual Tarantino world where everything is exaggerated and over the top. It’s far more subdued, with just a lot of people sitting around and talking, driving around in cars, and watching movies. Aesthetically, it even feels like a 60’s film. A majority of the shot composition consists of wide shots and close-ups, with sparse editing, as the camera trucks and pans around as characters traverse across the frame. Even Tarantino’s go-to cinematographer Robert Richardson abandons his signature style for a look more reminiscent of 60’s dramas. The lighting and look is far more natural and subdued, with Richardson clearly leaving all of his spotlights at home. There is your signature Tarantino film editing, where he and editor Fred Raskin intersperse flashbacks and anecdotes in the middle of scenes, but mostly, it’s all pretty standard and not too flashy. Tarantino wanted to make a 60’s film so bad that he said, “To hell with modern conventions,” and went all in. I had the pleasure of watching this projected on 35mm film, so the grain, scratches, and cigarette burns just added to that feeling of me watching a movie in a theater in 1969. 

Out of his entire filmography, I think Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is the most “your mileage may vary” Tarantino film yet. While I said you usually know what to expect going into his films, this one goes against nearly every convention of his. The stakes are low, the tone is somber, the aesthetic feels grounded, and the characters pretty ordinary. While it’s an excellent character piece, if you’re not a fan of old Hollywood or not too well versed in its history, I can see why people may think there’s not much of a point to it all. However, as someone with a vested interest in the film industry and all of its history, I found this snapshot into 1969 Los Angeles to be absolutely magnificent. 

9.5/10

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