I have a lot of respect for Quentin Tarantino even if he’s pretentious, full of himself and gets away with a lot of questionable things that stain his character. As a filmmaker, he’s one of the few in Hollywood who have managed to perfectly mix mainstream entertainment with artistic merit over the last three decades cementing himself as one of the world’s most talented and respected directors, writers and producers. His ninth film “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” (and he will never let you forget this is his ninth film) serves as a love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood in the 60s while also taking a revisionist approach to the infamous Manson Murders like only Tarantino can do. It’s been four years since the acclaimed director brought us “The Hateful Eight”, his lowest-rated but still critically praised full feature film outside of his half-movie “Death Proof”, so expectations and anticipation were high to see if Tarantino could recapture his former magic with his latest picture. It also happens to be the first of his movies I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing on the big screen. Does “Once Upon a Time” live up to the demands of the filmmaker’s caliber? Let’s find out. This is my review of “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”.
“Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”, which I will call “Once Upon a Time” through most of this review, takes place in an alternate history 1960s Los Angeles at the back end of the 1960s Hollywood Golden Age. The movie is broken up into three intertwining stories. One third focuses on a washed-up western actor named Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is trying to rekindle his former glory appearing in guest roles on television shows while struggling with his self-confidence and self-worth as an actor. The second story follows Dalton’s stunt double and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) a confident, badass Vietnam War veteran who finds himself introduced to the Manson Family cult after associating with one of its members. The third story follows Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) the real-life victim of the 1969 Manson Murders and the next-door neighbor of Dalton. Her story is meant to prepare us for the forthcoming real-life events of her murder, which both Dalton and Booth becoming unwittingly involved in by the film’s climax.
“Once Upon a Time” might not be Tarantino’s most groundbreaking or significant work, but it’s continued proof that he is one of the best filmmakers and storytellers in cinema today. As a love letter to 60s Hollywood, “Once Upon a Time” makes a bold and successful attempt to not only capture the personality of Hollywood at the time but the look and feels of the era as well. Like an artist painting a picture of a decade, Tarantino spares no expense in trying to create the atmosphere and visual style of old Hollywood while also shining a spotlight on the pressures and challenges of succeeding in film. Everything from the cars and buildings to the costume designs and characterizations is meant to evoke the magic of an era that served as the jumping-off point for Tarantino’s own obsession with the industry. Even the cinematography is designed to embrace different styles of the time from Dutch angles to a few neat moments where it looks like parts of the film reel have been spliced out, giving the film special touches emblematic of the limitations of filmmaking back in the day. It’s a really cool and stylized examination of what Hollywood used to be and I could literally do an entire write-up on the little hidden homages Tarantino puts in to honor a bygone era without ever losing touch with his vision or the direction of the story.
The film is perfectly cast as well with numerous heavy hitters not only starring in the picture but also providing some neat cameos. Dakota Fanning, Lena Dunham, Rumer Willis, and the late Luke Perry (in his final film role) were just a few I picked out on my own but there are many other big and small names scattered throughout the film, some playing adaptations of real-life actors like Steve McQueen, Bruce Lee and James Stacy while others like Kurt Russell and Al Pacino play larger side characters in the story. But the focus is purely on three performers for the bulk of the film, DiCaprio, Pitt and Robbie. All three are perfect fits for their roles with Pitt being the somewhat sarcastic muscle man, DiCaprio being the struggling actor trying to prove his merit, and Robbie being a soft-spoken Hollywood starlet. Every one of them feels fully invested in their performances whether they’re together or in their own separate story arks and it was an absolute joy to see what they did with their parts. They all had personality and certain levels of depth that made their characters relatable and, in some ways, even genuinely complex.
DiCaprio, in particular, pulls off a masterful performance playing an actor trying to find his footing after attempting a TV-to-film transition. In one of the best moments of the movie we see Rick Dalton playing a villain, so, essentially, it’s DiCaprio playing a man playing another person. DiCaprio has to portray an actor who lacks confidence in himself who is portraying a despicable and frightening villain on a television program. It’s so fascinating to see how he does it because when DiCaprio goes full villain for the role it brings you right in and makes you think you’re actually watching a different film…which technically you are, and once his character breaks character he breaks down after a little girl compliments his acting. It’s actually kind of surreal, but it’s a fascinating look at what it takes to be a great performer. At another point in the picture, Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate goes into a theater to watch her own movie while Cliff Booth’s visiting the Manson Family ranch hideout is spliced in as well. All three of these stories happen at the same time. Tate is hiding in the theater watching her own movie, experiencing the joy her performance brings to the people around her and showing genuine pride in her work. Meanwhile, Cliff Booth deals with the very real hidden terror of Hollywood at the time as he meets the Manson cult. Using a trio of well-acted and well-written storylines Tarantino’s narrative represents three different parts of Hollywood’s reality…the good the bad and the ugly so to speak (fitting seeing as westerns are heavily referenced in this film) of 1960’s Los Angeles.
One complaint I’ve heard a lot about this movie is the lack of development of Sharon Tate, and while there is some merit to those complaints (which would be hard to delve into without outright spoiling the ending) there is a reason for that approach. This film, like several of Tarantino’s, is an alternate timeline eventually involving its two fictional lead characters in the infamous Manson Murders that took the lives of Sharon Tate and several others. The first two hours of the movie are all buildup and character arcs, but the third act, the final 45 minutes, brings everything together in a way you may or may not expect. I spent the whole movie with the same concerns others had about why the only thing we’ve come to learn about Tate is that that we’re supposed to feel for her and want her to be happy, but the final result shows us why and it’s pure divisive Tarantino brilliance in all its glory. You come to realize that we’re not really following Sharon Tate. It’s not her story. She’s merely meant to lead us towards a horrid moment in history that, considering the reputation Tarantino has, we’re meant to expect as a bloody mess. We do get that blood and violence for sure, but not in the way you’d expect as Tarantino brilliantly builds up to the finale by playing with our emotions and expectations and then throwing a wrench in everything in the final segment of the picture. It’s a controversial and unexpected twist of fate to be sure, but would we really expect anything less from the mind of Tarantino at this point? Personally, I’m mixed on it, and the finale and Tate’s lack of development compared to the male characters are by far the most questionable aspects of the film. But it wasn’t enough to throw me off and I respected the risks and set up more than I was disappointed by the result.
“Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” is a fascinating breath of fresh air in a year lacking much creativity or uniqueness on the big screen. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had plenty of great adaptations this year too, but leave it to Quentin Tarantino to give us a unique picture that’s not only well made and well scripted but perfectly blends entertainment and depth in a way few directors have been able to accomplish in 2019. The acting is awesome, the set pieces and backdrops are immersive, there are more Easter eggs than you can handle meant to help pay homage to the filming clichés of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and the finale, while divisive, is a fun twist on real-life events that caps off what is truly a modern Hollywood fairytale masterpiece in its own right. It’s a fearless piece of nostalgic filmmaking gold that proves why Tarantino is still considered one of the greatest filmmakers of his time.