When Quentin Tarantino first burst onto the scene with Reservoir Dogs, little did we know that he was about to help usher in the reshaping of indie cinema with his brilliant tale of a heist gone wrong. Then, came Pulp Fiction – a film that changed cinema forever when it came to storytelling and direction. Over the years, Tarantino has dabbled in different genres but one thing has remained constant: his love for grindhouse cinema and the outlaw movies where things were loosey-goosey when it came to risky stunts, dangerous criminals, and ultra-violence.
While his career brought us landmark film after landmark film, Tarantino’s problematic reputation came forward as well, when it comes to things like his foot fetish to his almost killing Uma Thurman with a stunt gone wrong. Some have also accused him of being not one of the most friendly people to work with behind the scenes. Because of this questionable past, it is interesting that his latest film centers around a dark event in cinema history and another brilliant yet problematic director: Roman Polanski.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood takes place in the year 1969 – a time that marked the end of an era in the United States, as patriotism and happiness from The Powers That Be clashed with the realities of civil unrest and war protests. Where the innocence of the 1950’s and the forced optimism of the 1960s would clash and ultimately both would begin to die in the summer of that year, framed by Woodstock, the Moon Landing, and The Manson Family Murders.
In this film, we explore the year of 1969 and its effect on America through the eyes of three people. The first is Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an actor who, despite having a hit TV show, is discovering that he is slowly becoming a has-been. Having difficulty dealing with this revelation, he has become an alcoholic. This causes him trouble on the set of a new TV pilot that could either make or break his future in Hollywood. He even, hilariously, attempts to get in touch with the youth of the day by recording a song on the set of Hulabaloo that fails miserably. Rick’s story is that of the Hollywood old guard and a man who will do anything to save his career.
The second point-of-view character is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Dalton’s personal stunt double and, according to Rick, his best friend. Their relationship is more like that of Bruce Wayne and Alfred The Butler, however, with Cliff doing everything he can to prop Dalton up and keep him in line. Alas, due to the rumors of his past, Booth has trouble getting work in a field of film-work that is not respected in the Hollywood of 1969 – a theme that is explored heavily in this film. Living vicariously through Booth’s celebrity when not sleeping in his run-down trailer behind a drive-in cinema with his dog, Booth runs into a hippie girl, who winds up having connections with a questionable group of hippies living on an old Hollywood western set.
The third and final point-of-view character is Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a real-life actress who married director Roman Polanski after working with him on the film The Fearless Vampire Killers in 1967. Pregnant with his baby, Tate is depicted as an eternal optimist and total angel, who loves everyone she meets and tries to help everyone she can. She is still adjusting to her newfound fame, thanks to the success of Valley of the Dolls and her role in the new Dean Martin film The Wrecking Crew. Her career seems ready to take off and soar to the stars like the Apollo spacecraft, yet a dark fate awaits her on a hot August night in 1969.
Tarantino has managed to recreate the year 1969 in a way that makes the year a star of the film as well. From the neon signs and sounds on Sunset Boulevard, to the painstaking recreations of the radio and television broadcasts of the era, Tarantino successfully gives 1969 a pulse and captures the zeitgeist of the era. It is one of the main reasons why this film succeeds as well as it does.
Another reason for the success of this film comes from Tarantino’s screenplay and direction. The film is one-part time capsule, one-part love letter to stunt performers everywhere, and one-part slow burn down a long fuse towards a powder keg ready to blow. The whole film is a visual and audio feast. Its only real flaw is that there were some areas that could have been more tightly edited, as this movie is an endurance test, running 2 hours and 45 minutes.
The film is also filled with some amazing performances, with not only DiCaprio doing an excellent job as Dalton, but Robbie fully realizing the innocence of Tate. There has been some criticism regarding Robbie’s lack of dialogue in this film, but that does not make her performance any less memorable or powerful. Heck, Patricia Quinn had even less lines in The Rocky Horror Picture Show than Robbie does here, but Magenta is a well-realized character due to Quinn’s performance, in spite of that fact. The same can be said of Robbie’s performance here.
The stand-out, however, is Pitt as Booth. His performance is as smooth as velvet, and Pitt fits into the role of Booth so effortless that you often forget that he is Brad Pitt playing a character. The scene where he meets the Manson Family for the first time is filled with tension, yet he glides through it with a veneer of smooth confidence while still allowing the fear he is hiding to reach his eyes. It is a hard thing for an actor to play a character that is acting without looking like an actor, but Pitt makes it look easy.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is Tarantino at his most Tarantino-ist. This may be a turn off to some people, and with the directions this film takes I can understand how it can be divisive for some. For me, however, I would place this movie among Tarantino’s finest efforts. The only advice I can give you all about watching this film is this: go in knowing what we know of the real-world events, buckle in, and get ready for the unexpected.