I think it’s fair to say I’m a fan of Quentin Tarantino. Whilst I do think a lot of his films go on too long, especially The Hateful Eight, but when he’s on form you get some great films. For me personally, Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained are my favourites, and now Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is added to the upper echelons of Tarantino for me.
The film is set in Hollywood in 1969 focuses on Rick Dalton, the star of Western TV series Bounty Law in the 50s who has hit a career slump, the roles he’s getting being as one-shot villains in shows like The Green Hornet and The FBI. Dalton is supported by his stunt double/driver Cliff Booth, although Booth can’t get work as a stunt performer following both a fight on the set of The Green Hornet with Bruce Lee and the assumption that he killed his wife and got away with it. Dalton is further annoyed about his career since he lives next door to Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski and believes that one night of having drinks with them will help revitalise his career. At the same time, there’s the spectre of the Manson family present throughout the film. Now the film itself doesn’t really have a plot, most of it focused on a single day in the lives of Dalton, Booth and Tate and whilst Tarantino has namechecked a whole bunch of other films as influences, the film it reminds me most of is A Hard Day’s Night, which is not a bad comparison in my book. By focusing much of the film on a single day, Tarantino is able to effectively create a vibe for the time, showing off the landmarks of Hollywood as Dalton, Booth and Tate drive around and making great use of the radio to add an extra degree of believability to the film. For Dalton’s side of the film, we get an understanding of how TV shows at the time were filmed, along with how Dalton is being used to boost up other actors at his expense whilst for Tate’s side of the film, we see her joy in the films she’s made and how the public sees Tate. This, along with how the film ends, gives the film more of a melancholic feel than a lot of other Tarantino films. This is also seen through the violence in the film, which only happens at the end of the film and, until that point, I was kind of surprised this got an 18 rather than a 15.
This melancholic feel is mostly focused on the feeling we get from Tarantino that the 60’s was the golden age of Hollywood and we see Tarantino’s longing for that period to not end. It is often considered that the point the 60’s ended was on August 9th 1969 with the Manson Murders and Tarantino uses this to build tension. Granted some of this involves prior knowledge of the event, with Tarantino using location names and the way characters are referred to in order to build tension. This extends into Booth’s side of the film, with the scene of him on Spahn Ranch with the Manson Family being one of the most intense scenes I’ve seen this year and I think will be one of the highpoints of Tarantino’s career.
There are some elements of the film though that will be divisive, mainly the lack of dialogue for Sharon Tate and the depiction of Bruce Lee, along with the ending. Whilst I understand a lot of the criticisms of these scenes and do agree with some of them, mainly with the Bruce Lee scene which, whilst an entertaining scene, does feel a bit insulting towards Lee. However, these elements were not enough to detract from my overall enjoyment of the film.
The performances meanwhile are solid across the board. Leonardo DiCaprio as Dalton does a great job at showing someone who knows his career is dead and is having to come to terms with it and no longer being relevant. He also shows Dalton to be a great actor when given the right motivation and material, as shown through Dalton’s appearance on Lancer and it is a good skill for DiCaprio to essentially play two characters at the same time. Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth is also great, showing Booth as someone darker and more brutal (with it being pretty clear to me that Booth did kill his wife), along with showing Booth to be kind of pathetic and lonely outside of his friendship with Booth, along with having some moments of sympathy. What really elevates the film is the genuine chemistry that DiCaprio and Pitt have with each other, bringing across a believable friendship. Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate is strong, showing her to be more innocent and joyful as a good contrast with Dalton and Booth, along with capturing the feel of being a star in the 60’s at the time and whilst Robbie doesn’t have much dialogue, she brings so much to Tate through her facial expressions and body language. For the rest of the cast, Julia Butters as Dalton’s co-star in Lancer is fun, showing good contrast in her acting style with Dalton’s and showing how acting for TV changed from the 50’s to the late 60’s, whilst Margaret Qualley as Pussycat, one of the Manson family, is fun in the film, with there being this underlying uncomfortable nature to the character which Qualley brings across well. A lot of the tension in the scenes with the Manson family also comes through strong performances from Austin Butler and Dakota Fanning, who bring this violent, creepy nature to their roles. There are also good performances for one or two scenes from Al Pacino, Timothy Olyphant (I don’t know if there was a meta gag in casting an actor well known for a Western show, in Olyphant’s case Deadwood, as the lead in Lancer but I think this does add a bit of depth to the role) and Luke Perry.
On a technical level, the film is impressive. The costume and production design do a great job at evoking the feel of the late 60’s, aided by the music that plays and the use of radio adverts from the time to give an extra bit of reality to these scenes. The best part for me though came through the recreation of the style of film and TV from the time, through the clips of Bounty Law that we see, some clips and posters of spaghetti westerns and James Bond rip-offs we see Dalton make (with it being a big plot point that Dalton has been reduced to making films in Italy, not seeing the potential in them like Clint Eastwood did) and we even get a little bit of DiCaprio edited into The Great Escape, which also helps to show that DiCaprio is one of the last of the classic type Hollywood stars.
Overall, I loved Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. I found it to be a more thoughtful and melancholic film than I expected from Tarantino, showing his love for the 60’s era of cinema and desire for that period to not end. The performances and production help to give this feel of the 60’s and through this we get what feels like one of the more personal films Tarantino has made.
My Rating: 5/5