Released: 14th August
Seen: 16th August
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the 9th film by Quentin Tarantino, so possibly his second last if he keeps to the idea of retiring after 10. For this film, Quentin decided to ask one very simple question that would end up creating possibly the most controlled film of his incredible career… what if the Manson Family had gone to the house right next door to Sharon Tate instead. It’s another in Quentin’s series of “Historical Revisionism” movies, along with Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained but I think this might be the best version of that kind of story that Quentin’s ever done.
The film follows Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a TV actor who got famous in the early 60s with a western series Bounty Law. Sadly, as the 60s wore on his career slowly starts to go down due to the change in times and the slow death of the Western. Rick currently has a guest role on a new show and is trying to bring his friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) with him, since Cliff has been Rick’s stuntman for a considerable amount of time. The two of them try to find a way to make it in this new Hollywood that neither of them seems to properly fit into.
The contrast between Rick and Cliff is so fascinating that you don’t mind spending a few hours with them before the Mansons show up. Rick might be slowly going out of style but the man is still rich enough to get a home on Cielo Drive with a pool and a fancy car. Meanwhile, Cliff is living in a trailer out behind a drive-in theatre, surviving on occasional jobs that don’t pay anywhere near enough to survive even though he is literally putting his body on the line. This contrast between the rich famous guy and the poorer guy who does the hard work could be used to create tension but here it almost shows how strong their bond is, with Rick trying as much as he can to drag Cliff with him into potential fame and fortune.
Both the leading men are great but it’s not really deniable that Brad Pitt is stealing every scene that he’s in with ease. His scenes may as well come with a small sign in the bottom corner of the screen that reads “This man is cooler than you’ll ever be” because they want to make sure you understand how amazing he is. If they can’t convince you by the casual smirk he has perpetually on his face, then maybe they’ll convince you by having him kick Bruce Lee’s ass. It’s probably one of Brad Pitt’s best creations, a character who could probably go toe to toe with Tyler Durden for ‘Best Brad Pitt character’.
Leo is also on top form and while this character won’t come close to some of Leo’s best, there is something about this character that you just root for. You root for him to get out of his career slump and actually get the notice that he desires and Leo plays him with a kind of charm and warmth that makes you love him regardless of what his character is doing. When he messes up a line reading or sets Nazis on fire, you want Rick to do better and you want him to make it.
Now you’ll notice that up to this point, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) hasn’t really been addressed as I talk about the film. Well, that’s because she kind of stays out of the main action. While they do have her interact with the family, notably when Charlie Manson (Damon Herriman) turns up to her home and appears to be lost, when it comes time to do “the night of the murder”, Sharon checks out of the film so she’s nowhere near the danger. If anything, her role in this film is simply to remind audiences that Sharon’s career had only just started and she had just proven her comedic chops in the film The Wrecking Crew before the murders. It’s shining a light on the movies we missed out on when she was taken from us.
The film is probably the most controlled that Tarantino has ever been, relying largely on his naturally great dialogue to pull us into this world and make us fall for every one of our main characters. Everything is, for the most part, toned down, except the foot fetish thing which is still just an odd trademark. The violence is pretty normal until the last second of the film when they ramp it up. It’s linear with the occasional quick flashback to fill in info (AKA “Explain why Cliff can’t come on set”). The filming itself is very careful and there isn’t the kind of flash you would expect from Quentin. Visually and from a tonal standpoint, almost anyone could make this film… except, no one would think to do a historical reimagining of the Tate murders EXCEPT Quentin. It’s just weird to see him making a film that’s not as over the top as usual, but it’s an interesting change that I can get behind.
Some sequences in this film will probably go in several top ten lists of “Best Quentin Tarantino scenes”, namely the scene where Cliff visits the ranch or Rick’s conversation with an 8-year-old actor or even the final sequence. The final scene is where we see the old Quentin running out to have a quick play with the toys before letting serious composed Quentin handle the last shot. If nothing else, the final scene of this film is so gloriously nuts that you should go just to see it. It’s the scene that feels most like the Quentin we know already and after a few hours of build-up, it’s a delicious payoff.
Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is a great exploration of old Hollywood told through the eyes of new Hollywood, praising those who came before and offering them a better ending than the one they got. It’s a rollercoaster of emotions that brings out some career-best performances by the cast and one of the best things that Quentin has done. It may not be as big and bombastic as some of his earlier work, but it’s still pretty great.