Quentin Tarantino is one of cinema’s contemporary auteurs. When you’re going into a Tarantino film, you have a strong sense of what you’re in for – a highly stylized, violent, mythic version of the world. His pantheon of “Kill Bill,” “Hateful Eight,” “Django Unchained,” “Pulp Fiction,” and others all fit into that genre. Now with “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” he’s able to double down on a mythic world, since what already fits that bill more cleanly than 60s-era Hollywood. An era that still resonates with names and events that echo in todays consciousness half a century later.
The story follows an aging star of western films and television, Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and his long-time stunt-double, bff, and assistant, Cliff Booth (played by Brad Pitt). On the one hand it’s a straightforward story of a star in Hollywood past his prime and his trying to adapt to an industry that only seems to want him to make younger stars shine brighter. On another layer is the world that they inhabit and the denizens around them – Bruce Lee, Steve McQueen, Marvin Schwarzs, Roman Polanski, and Sharon Tate (played by Margot Robbie).
Clocking in at two hours and forty-five minutes, the whole film is a languid affair. Quentin’s scenes are a case study in self-indulgence with the extent to which the film captures the world as we remember it – though the lens of the years and aging color-saturated photos. There’s long stretches of time where the story doesn’t inch anywhere, but sinking deeper into a hazy time machine. However it’s done with a flair and skill on a level that few other directors working today could match. There’s an extended scene where Dalton is filming a western, and it’s shown as if we’re watching the final cut itself. A long tracking shot has panned around establishing that there’s no film crew evident, but then he forgets his line and calls for a reminder, and immediately over the audience’s left shoulder is the voice of the script supervisor loud and clear feeding it to him. It’s as if we’re sitting right alongside the cameraman. It’s masterfully done, but in the end, you also realize that the last ten minutes weren’t really needed to advance the core story itself.
It’s not that it’s a bad approach, but different members of the audience will respond to it in very differing ways. Some will love it, others will be frustrated wanting to get back to the point. Neither side is wrong, as what appeals to one viewer will be quite different than the next. Another element that keeps pulling perhaps too much attention is having Sharon Tate, Charles Manson and the children. We know what happens between them all one fateful night, and as time progresses, any engagement we have with Dalton and Booth can’t overwhelm the dread of what must be coming.
Of capturing the visceral feel of a particular time and place, it’s never really been done before as effectively as he has accomplished it here, and DiCaprio will certainly be nominated not a few times during this year’s award season. With relatively few lines and not many more scenes Robbie’s performance imbues Tate with a depth that in a lesser actresses hands would have come across as a vapid caricature of Tate.
Until it’s been spoiled, where the movie goes is not at all what is suspected by the audience. This is one where getting out and seeing it before it’s plastered all over social media and unavoidable headlines. If you want to see it, get out there very soon so you can enjoy what Tarantino has composed.
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5.