Quentin Tarantino is a filmmaker who entered cinema at exactly the right moment it needed him, but also has the misfortune of being born in the wrong era. While he’s enjoyed immense success over the years, and has always managed to move with the fluidity of the ever changing popular culture, one gets the sense that he would have been far more at home making his bones alongside the likes of Coppola, Lucas, Bogdanovich and Scorsese when they were on the come up back in the 60’s and 70’s. He’s a director with a deep fascination with cinema – a very particular aspect of cinema – that he continues to revisit over and over, remaking, remixing and reintroducing to a new and more hungry audience each outing. While some might say that he wears his inspirations on his sleeve (or perhaps steals outright), he’s very much still that dude in the video store, recommending things for people to watch, and celebrating moments and genres of cinema that were once forgotten or even maligned. With Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, this oddly feels like Tarantino at his most personal, acting as a type of therapy for the auteur, using a film to plant himself into a moment in filmmaking he might feel he missed out on.
Once Upon A Time in Hollywood follows DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, formerly a tv cowboy who had grander ideals of being a movie star now standing on the cusp of being a has-been. Dalton acts as a sort of personification of the Hollywood leading men that history has forgotten about. The slew of Clint Eastwoods who just never made it – the could have beens. Indeed, Dalton is staring down the barrel of that same fate and he knows it. In tow is his long term friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) who’s essentially just along for the ride, having resigned himself to the fact that his career is basically done and dusted. Together, the two make for an unlikely yet charming duo, Booth acting as driver and emotional support to the ever crumbling Dalton, who’s trying to claw back whatever sort of career he feels he has left. Meanwhile one Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) have moved in next door to Dalton, the year the infamous Manson murders are to take place.
What’s truly unique about this film more than any of Tarantino’s previous endeavours is how unlike him it feels. Or perhaps, this is who he’s always been and he’s only now just laying himself bare to the audience. While some of the director’s traits can be seen – the dialogue, film references, broken narrative etc – they’re not as laid thick as they usually are. Here it feels as though Tarantino kind of wants to just live in this film, or at least touch this moment in Hollywood he reveres so much. He’s also making sure we remember a particular time in film history – before Marvel films, and tent pole blockbusters, before a weekend could make or break a movie, before endless sequels, reboots, remakes, prequels and sidequels, there was a point in time when those in Hollywood at least convincingly pretended that the art of movie making wasn’t solely about making profit but also projecting art out into the world.
What easily could have been a Tarantino-fied version of the Manson family murders is really an ode to the cowboys who are no longer, introducing us at a moment where it all changed. Before easy riders, the Corleones and Skywalkers completely upended the idea of filmmaking forever, there was a time when things felt more optimistic. Here Robbie’s Tate is used as way to convey that optimism – the delightful blonde with an incredibly sunny disposition who’s able to light up a room and everyone in it when she enters. While not the focus of the film, she does an incredible job of embodying a more innocent time before she was so brutally snatched away.
But it’s DiCaprio and Pitt who really steal the film. There’s a perverse joy in watching Dalton fall apart. DiCaprio always brings his A game to everything he touches, but here he completely eschews whatever leading man sheen he has and allows himself to be utterly pathetic. And once that joy wears off for the audience, we’re left with a heartfelt look at a man who’s not ready to let go of what he’s built for himself. And as laid back as he is, Pitt is given moments where he really goes for it in a way I haven’t seen since Fight Club or even 12 Monkeys. His performance, particularly in the fiery finale will leave you wheezing with laughter and cringing in horror.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is not what you’d expect, which is saying something about a filmmaker who basically prides himself on never being pinned down. If you go in expecting a Kill Bill / Inglorious Basterds / Django Unchained explosiveness, you’ll be bitterly disappointed. But, if you allow yourself to be taken on a tour of Hollywood through the lens of one of the greats, you may find that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has more to say about what was and what could be when it comes to modern movie making.