Quick Hit: Tarantino’s penultimate film is a one that is clearly all his own.
Quentin Tarantino has a variety of films, some of which we’ve covered on this site. He is one of the most vocal advocates of the “hang out” film; which is a film where the plot becomes decentralized to the idea of simply watching interesting characters be interesting. Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood serves as Tarantino’s love tribute to these types of films, along with also serving as an example of exactly why he can be such a wonderful and frustrating filmmaker. These factors, along with the fact that he has stated he wants to finish as a director of 10 films (this being his ninth), combine with the feeling that this may be one of his most personal films.
As stated previously, there is an extremely loose interpretation of the word “plot” that occurs throughout the film. The year is 1969, and it starts by introducing us to our leads separately – we first meet Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he is on the end of his career as a television star. He is told by an agent (Al Pacino – the second time he’s appeared in the Best Picture nominations this year) that he needs to go to Rome to keep his star shining and appear in those famous “spaghetti westerns” of the late 60s and early 70s. Rick is less than thrilled about the idea, particularly since it means departing with his stunt man of many years, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). We also follow the story of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a rising actress that married Roman Polanski and… we’ll get to what she’s most known for in a minute.
The layout of the film is a bit confusing, as we frequently follow our characters into actual performances from movies and television, flashback in time, and jump to characters that essentially have no interaction together. This creates some really memorable scenes – like Cliff fighting Bruce Lee, but it also gives the film a bit of a disjointed feel. But it allows each character a moment to shine alone. DiCaprio gets to show both an expanded ego and a huge vulnerability in regards to his performances. His best scene involves a conversation with a young actress as he contemplates his own impending irrelevance. Pitt has a bunch of his own scenes that are frequently violent or just have a feeling of danger. I think my favorite was when he ends up at a former movie set that is now being housed by a complex of hippies. There is a drastic tension that drips from every moment in the scene that is largely carried by Pitt’s performance.
A lot was made while the movie was on the festival circuit of Robbie’s role in the film. She, in truth, has very few speaking parts, and has a drastically reduced screen time compared to the rest of the characters. However, she has one of the most emotional scenes in the movie, as we get to watch her enjoy the film that she stares in. These moments, as she relishes in the faint praise from the laughter she gains, are incredibly moving in their own way, and it makes later actions in the movie that much more heart-wrenching.
That’s because what Sharon Tate (told you I’d come back to it) is most famous for is being murdered by Charles Manson followers. Tarantino always seems to return to scenes that feature extreme violence, and he lights the fuse that has slowly been burning throughout the movie in the last act – giving a conclusion that will cause more than a few winces from viewers. It’s filmed in his normal up-close and personal style, and even reflects on moments from previous portions of the movie that originally seemed like throw-away jokes.
But probably what is best about the film is how it immediately gives you the feeling that you have been transported to the year 1969. From the music, which gives you familiar songs sung by different artists, to the allusions to cinematic history sprinkled throughout with props and backgrounds, it really does feel like you’re back in that time period. It is a terrific piece of work that slides you effortlessly into the past, made all the more poignant when viewed through the lens that Tarantino uses to bring a grittiness and a bright yellow feeling to his scenes. It’s a terrific film, but I don’t know if I can rank it among his best. I prefer the feeling of a Django or an Inglorious Basterds, which have more concrete plots to follow.
So, without further commentary necessary, I’m going to give this one a “B+”.
For more on this film, check out IMDB.
"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"