Directed by Quentin Tarantino
From 14th August 2019
Reviewed by Nick Daly
From the outset, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood appears to be a celebration of Quentin Tarantino’s filmography thus far. It’s set in an era he grew up in, within an industry he adores, and naturally contains numerous actors from his previous features (Brad Pitt from Inglourious Basterds and Leonardo DiCaprio from Django Unchained). One should never, however, enter a Quentin Tarantino film thinking they should know what to expect. After all, this is the director who began his career with a heist film without the actual heist, and crafted a World War II film without showing a second of an actual war.
Fret not, however, for Once Upon a time… in Hollywood is indeed about Hollywood. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton is a struggling actor trying to break out of small parts in Western serials to be a leading man, while Brad Pitt is his stunt man and seemingly only friend with a questionable past. Interestingly, and much like his other historical film Inglourious Basterds, reality and fiction blur together as Tarantino’s creations live amongst the real-life setting of Hollywood in 1969, along with all its famous inhabitants. Margot Robbie portrays tragic rising star Sharon Tate, the actress most known for her brutal murder by the Manson family. In the film, the cult linger eerily in the background as the narrative edges steadily closer to the fateful night of her death.
So far, so Tarantino, but how Tarantino surprises his audience is the way Once Upon a Time… doesn’t appear to be a typical Tarantino film at all. Soaked in atmosphere, Tarantino paints an intoxication picture of that specific time and place, with the director unexpectedly lingering on the neon hues of Los Angeles in order to immerse the audience in the surroundings.
Tarantino has always had a tendency to linger on shots he finds appealing: Vincent Vega quietly sitting at the table of Jack Rabbit Slim’s, for example, absorbing the atmosphere of the diner while waiting for Mia Wallace to return from the restroom. However, it seems to be the first time a film of his has possessed such a fixation on creating a mood and ambience, and it draws similarities to the films of Richard Linklater and Sofia Copolla. Even the dialogue isn’t as famously zippy as his previous films, which almost always contains at least one killer line that retains in the memory. Instead Tarantino’s writing has a more naturalistic and subdued approach.
With these elements, the beginning of Once Upon a Time… is sublime. Even mundane scenes of Cliff fixing the antenna on Rick’s roof have an oddly captivating nature, helped by the way it’s charmingly intercut with Sharon dancing in her room next door, and a flashback sequence involving Bruce Lee (ultimately becoming one of the film’s most standout moments).
As the film progresses, however, the film finds it difficult to sustain this engrossment. The meandering nature that had a grip on its audience soon begins to loosen, and the lack of a focused plot becomes achingly evident. When Rick lands a part in a new Western series Lancer, the film almost grinds to a halt with an abundance of over-extended sequences.
In one of these scenes, Rick converses with a child actor about the plot of the book he’s reading, which appears to be very similar to his own life. “He’s feeling more useless with each passing day,” Rick tearfully says, beginning to cry. Emotion is rarely a strong factor in Tarantino films (although he did grapple sentimentality with Kill Bill and Django Unchained), and it will depend on the viewer whether this attempt at emotion is effective.
Tarantino evidently has something to express about the passing of time and feelings of obsoletion, but the subject is never fully explored for it to be a substantial topic in the film.
In another long scene, the audience is subjected to almost an entire scene within Lancer that will tests some viewers patience with its aimlessness. Of course, Tarantino has always been unconventional with the structure his films, non-linear in Pulp Fiction and isolated chapters in Inglourious Basterds, for example, but Once Upon a Time… takes the unconventionality to another level with its erratic arrangement.
It’s easy to understand why Tarantino would fall in love with words he’s written and scenes he’s directed, and there’s a charming aspect to the way he wishes to share it with the audience, but sometimes such enthusiasm must be restrained for the greater good. In this case, for the sake of the quality of a film.
Certainly, drawn-out scenes consisting solely of dialogue are a staple of Tarantino films. However, the difference is that these scenes often contain an underlying sense of suspense that carries them towards its explosive, and often violent, end (as in the 45-minute bar scene in Inglourious Basterds). Likewise, in Kill Bill: Volume 2, the lengthy sequences of Beatrix and Bill’s conversations explores the nature of their relationship, and also added depth to a simplistic narrative. In Once Upon a Time…, these long scenes often have no such purpose, and they’ve never felt quite as detrimental to the film as they do here (I feel the same issue is also evident in Tarantino’s previous film, The Hateful Eight).
This sporadic and excessive nature is possibly Tarantino in the midst of a new phase in his work, similar to his sudden change in style with Kill Bill: Volume 1 after his films in the nineties. However, this difference in approach has also coincided with the death of his long-time editor, Sally Menke, in 2010. With editing often being an overlooked aspect of filmmaking, it’s arguable that Menke was a crucial ingredient in the distinct flavour of Tarantino’s films, and a large part of what made them work. Since his films from 2010 have, in my opinion, felt overblown and somewhat self-indulgent, there’s evidence to suggest that Menke was the person who restrained Tarantino. She appeared to have harnessed his extravagant sensibilities and crafted them into finely-tuned pieces of film. With free-reign, who knows what the wild and creative mind of Tarantino would produce? Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is perhaps the answer.
Naturally, even a lower-tier Tarantino film, as in Death Proof, has its ingenious moments. When Cliff comes across and investigates the Spahn Ranch, the movie ranch where the Manson Family reside, it conveys just how adept Tarantino is at forming and maintaining a sense of threat. Meanwhile, in an altogether different sequence, Sharon is watching her own film at the cinema, which is actually Margot Robbie playing Sharon while watching the actual Sharon on screen, creating an interesting three-layered scene that could only be seen in a Tarantino film.
Additionally, whether it’s Rick and Cliff driving through the city accompanied by Jose Feliciano’s pensive rendition of California Dreamin’, or the melancholic close-up of Sharon’s beautiful face as she rides along to Buffy Sainte-Marie’s The Circle Game, Tarantino proves that he’s still the master of uniting the perfect blend of sound and visual to create film magic.
Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a typically intense performance that draws comparisons to the outlandish nature of his character of Jordan Bedford in The Wolf of Wall Street, particularly when Cliff has a meltdown in his trailer over the inadequacies of his acting ability. Additionally, Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth is the type of nonchalant and effortlessly cool character that will sit nicely alongside other iconic Tarantino characters.
Meanwhile, Tarantino’s treatment of Sharon Tate is rather touching, as she possesses an almost ghostly presence in her scenes sprinkled throughout the film. Her small screen time, however, in comparison to the other two leads, veers dangerously close to reducing the performance into caricature territory. Her scenes also rely on the viewer’s prior knowledge of her horrific fate in order to effectively convey their meaning. While they’re a pleasant and elegant contrast to the machismo of Rick and Cliff’s scenes, there’s a foreboding, lamb-to-the-slaughter nature about her scenes that casts an interestingly dark shadow over the proceedings.
At the film’s end, Once Upon a Time… resolves itself in such a ludicrous way that feels jarring in comparison to the rest of the film. Without revealing details, the film’s final moments are perhaps the most entertaining and energetic of the whole film, but would feel more welcome if the film had at least retained an element of absurd comedy throughout, and hadn’t began in the low-key and mature manner that it did.
Indeed, these tonal shifts have been evident throughout Tarantino’s work, and they’re part of the reason why he remains such a one-of-a-kind director. Inglourious Basterds began and ended in a similar fashion, with a series of sophisticated scenes that ultimately culminated in B-movie-style exploitation, while Kill Bill miraculously juxtaposed its absurd and stylised action sequences with a rather emotional tale of revenge. However, for the reasons stated, Once Upon a Time…’s handling of these tonal shifts don’t work as successfully, and another possibility could be the lack of editing by Sally Menke.
The film’s ending will certainly be divisive, with some viewers perhaps questioning whether treating the Manson killings as a source of comedy is tasteless, but Once
Upon a Time… wouldn’t be a Tarantino film without an element of shock and provocation.
Despite all its flaws and absurdities, and however low in the ranking of his filmography you may place it, there’s still something oddly enthralling about a film by Tarantino.
If you feel anything like I do: particularly low and uninspired after a dull and uneventful summer, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood will rejig your mindset and invigorate your senses, as you step inside the wild, sometimes tedious, occasionally ridiculous but always creative mind of Quentin Tarantino.