Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood
Perhaps it is a failing of mine that I find myself unable, or unwilling if I am honest, to let Quentin Tarantino go. My reaction to his last film, The Hateful Eight, was fairly savage even by my own standards, a picture I described as “an extended example of every flaw that Tarantino has”, which took on the form of a Babel-esque self-tribute by the director. It was too long, it was too meandering, it had no sense of restraint when it come blood and violence. It was, in my opinion, the moment when Tarantino dropped the ball for the first time.
Subsequent revelations about the man, especially regarding the dangerous and unprofessional manner he handled an on-set incident with Uma Thurman during the filming of Kill Bill, has only lowered my opinion of Tarantino. Initially, I was not going to give his ninth, and, potentially his penultimate, film a viewing. But I couldn’t help myself in the end. Tarantino, for all of his flaws, has that track record. The cast assembled here is stellar, and the premise is interesting. The length boded poorly, but it at least promised a greater variety in scenery than The Hateful Eight. More than anything, I am drawn to Tarantino because I still remember how Reservoir Dogs and Inglorious Basterds impacted on me, and I am willing to temporarily look past the negatives to see if I can get that feeling again. Was I right, or have I reached the end of the road with Tarantino?
Hollywood, 1969: Fading TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his loyal stunt double turned gopher Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) are part of an entertainment business they barely recognise anymore, with both fearful of growing irrelevancy for different reasons. At the same time, young actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) moves in next door to Dalton: through a series of varied circumstances, the three explore the state of a changing film-making industry, leading to a fateful encounter with the Manson Family Cult.
I found myself pleasantly surprised, maybe even a bit stunned, by Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, which for the sake of brevity I will abbreviate going forward. Once Upon… might be Tarantino’s most mature film yet, and while it has its flaws, and can’t claim to be in the upper tier of his back catalogue, it is a very welcome improvement on the arrogance of The Hateful Eight. It’s a mid-life crisis playing out on screen, showcasing a reservation that I’m not sure I can say the director has ever been able to portray before.
We should frame things as Tarantino does, by taking a look at each of the three narratives of Once Upon… in turn. DiCaprio, back in front of Tarantino’s camera again after his movie-stealing villain turn in Django Unchained, is the primary one, a once big-time TV actor whose role on fictional 1950’s black-and-white western serial Bounty Law is long behind him. Now, as Al Pacino’s casting agent outlines in an extended cameo, he’s reduced to being “the heavy” in TV guest spots, an actor whose only purpose is to make the lead look good by being beaten up. That’s a heavy burden to carry, which DiCaprio’s Dalton mixes liberally with binge drinking, self-loathing and an unspoken jealousy of Booth self-assured nature.
Dalton’s story is a quest for relevancy, as he navigates the fact that not only has his profession moved on, but maybe he isn’t quite as good at it as he thought he was. It’s not hard to see Tarantino, who has spoken at length about his fears of becoming a less than stellar “geriatric” director, projecting a good bit of himself into Dalton, whose barely contained depression seeps into his stuttering attempts to play a western hoodlum in some of the film’s best moments, on set in the pilot episode of Lancer, a real show from the late 1960’s. He struggles with his lines, admonishes himself in the mirror, makes mistake after mistake. But, through the power of DiCaprio’s performance – and when has he ever given a bad one really – Dalton remains sympathetic, a protagonist to root for, even if we might only be willing to grant him small victories.
There are set-pieces aplenty here for Tarantino aficionados to get their teeth into, even if some of them stray dangerously close to that meandering path he was all too willing to walk down with The Hateful Eight. Dalton verbally spars with an eight-year-old co-star (Julia Butters) who has gone full method on set; Timothy Olyphant is back in a cowboy hat on the same set, which was a treat for me and any other Justified fans; and Tarantino sprinkles the film with looks at Dalton’s back catalogue, replete with fictional films – 14 Fists Of McCluskey is a Nazi-ploitation film where Dalton savages SS officers with a flamethrower, a device that serves as its own sub-genre of Checkov’s Gun – and some insertion of DiCaprio into actual stuff, like replacing Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. When Dalton decides to bring his A-Game the result is supremely powerful, with the film’s most cathartic moment seeing him try to bring a Shakespearean energy to a TV pilot.
Pitt plays a very different type of character. His Cliff is fascinating in and of his own right, a one-time stunt man who now serves as Dalton’s driver and general PA, though there is an obvious friendship between the two that is portrayed quite well. Cliff is suspected of killing his wife sometime in the past – the reasons for which are suitably shown in a brief cutaway – and carries a certain silent moroseness to him, with Pitt having some of the most limited dialogue of his career, though that doesn’t stop him from bringing the goods the same way that he did for Aldo Raine.
If Dalton is looking for relevancy, Cliff’s story might be about a more straightforward look for purpose: with Dalton’s days at the top over and the end of his career not far away, Cliff is a man who will soon be out of a job. Tarantino explores the more soul-searching stuff with Dalton as well as he does the more practical minded experience of Cliff, and if there is a thesis to the Cliff character, it may be a simple declaration that success and fame does not solve problems, with the relatively poor Cliff – he lives in a trailer, with only his dog for company – more happy and comfortable with himself than Dalton in his mansion, having little to prove.
There are classic sequences aplenty with Pitt as much as there is with DiCaprio: his back-and-forth with teenaged hipster “Pussycat” (Margaret Qualley, recently of the excellent Io); his elongated but suitably tense visit to the Spahn Ranch, home of the Manson Family, where Lean Dunham, Dakota Fanning and Bruce Dern guest star; and, perhaps Once Upon…’s key standout scene, that has generated plenty of commentary, his rapidly violent encounter with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of The Green Hornet. Pitt’s great, whether he is trying to buoy up Dalton or going on an acid trip, giving us an ambivalent character we are never able to quite wrap our head around.
Between DiCaprio’s Dalton and Pitt’s Booth, we get most of the director’s writing and dialogue, and while it isn’t as immediately quotable as a Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, it’s still very good. It’s also very different for this writer: missing are the lengthy monologues, the deliberately pointless exchanges of thought and debates on topics of no importance to the plot. But there is still much to appreciate: Dalton’s manic self-destruction after a bad day on set, where he promises his reflection he’ll blow his brains out if he doesn’t improve; Booth’s discussion with a Manson Family member offering him fellatio who doesn’t feel inclined to tell him her age; Bruce Lee waxing lyrical about who would win a fight between he and Cassius Clay. At times, Tarantino goes too far, such as a third act narration that is unwelcome and unnecessary, but Once Upon…’s script is an otherwise solid affair, a reflection of the aforementioned maturity of its writer.
But you will have noticed there was a name I didn’t mention regards the script: Sharon Tate. Much has been said about how limited Margot Robbie appears to be in the film, and it is true that her depiction of Tate is given a fairly small amount of dialogue and has a questionable point to the larger proceedings, especially when we get to the film’s last half-hour or so (more on that in a minute). Tarantino seemingly wants her to be his representation of Hollywood purity: a young beautiful and carefree woman who just wants to be in the pictures, and be adored, and be recognised, but who lacks any serious negativity in terms of ego or pomp. If Dalton is a representation of Hollywood decline, and Cliff its sometimes unseemly grease on the wheels, then Tate is the ideal.
Robbie makes hay with what she is given, but could perhaps have been afforded the opportunity to emote verbally more, rather than just maintain a solid, but limiting, visual expression level. That being said, a scene where she watches one of her own films in a theatre (putting on a pair of large glasses she wouldn’t dare wear out in public, a very human touch), silently pleased with the audience’s reaction to her character, is some of Robbie’s best acting ever, even if I did feel the exact same thing was done by Alden Ehrenreich in Hail, Caesar!. Tate will not go down as one of Tarantino’s better female characters, but is still worthy of some attention.
Dalton, Booth and Tate move around Tarantino’s vision of late 1960’s LA, and it is very much his vision, a fairy tale as the title might indicate. It is a personal representation of his own charming and bittersweet nostalgia for the time and place, an examination a changing age when Tarantino himself straddles both sides of a similar epoch. The cars, the film theaters, the advertisements on billboards and on TV, the music pumping out radios with the twisty dials (and that soundtrack is a labour of love), this very much seems like the kind of Hollywood depiction you would expect from a man raised on a diet of films from the era. Cameos abound, whether it is Luke Perry in his last movie role as a Lancer regular, or Damien Lewis as Steve McQueen, who gets the chance to ponder on Sharon Tate’s marriage to Roman Polanski (who, in his turn, is barely in the film, probably a wise choice considering Tarantino’s comments on the man in the past). You have to accept that the thing is a fantasy to a large degree: Once Upon…’s Hollywood is remarkably white for one thing.
But it is something I was willing to forgive, since Tarantino’s sets up this fantasyland so well. It’s a living breathing entity, whether it is the constructed set of a western fringe town, the baking roadways that are iconic in their own right, or the old-time cinemas that featured actual ushers who took you to your seats. It is a very important slice of counter-culture USA, with its scantily clad hippies offering free love and drugs, while Vietnam War news is oft-heard in the background. It’s a picture of a by-gone, and somewhat fictional, age, but one appreciates Tarantino’s efforts all the same, a match for Damien Chazelle’s La La Land in terms of reverence and representation.
Once Upon… builds slowly enough, though I was actually caught a bit off-guard by the credits: while long, it simply doesn’t drag as much as I thought it would. The director has returned to his previously stellar skills of editing and pacing, that were exposed so badly with The Hateful Eight: perhaps the switch to Sony after his schism with the Weinstein’s helped with that. It takes a while but in time the lives and plot lines of the three leads intersect, as they build to a meeting with the infamous Manson Family.
Manson himself appears only briefly (played by Damon Herriman, also of Justified now that I think of it) but plenty of his followers, some real, some amalgamations, also show up. Whatever about their notoriety, they were an iconic part of that era: Tarantino’s picture of them is equal parts creepy and alluring, which is probably the right balance in retrospect. In terms of being antagonists, they don’t hold a candle to Hanz Landa or Calvin Candie, but are still interesting nonetheless, a group with this warped and ultimately violent mix of liberal sexuality, apocalyptic ideology and violent mindsets. Tarantino, perhaps in a somewhat playful self-rib, places the last against fictionalised violence on TV, which one Family member claims should be a motivation for them to kill entertainment industry figures.
In its conclusion, Once Upon… moves strongly into the realms of wish fulfillment, much as Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained did, albeit the event it is dishing out make-believe justice for is on a smaller scale. Your tolerance for what Tarantino does with his ending will probably depend on your knowledge of the actual history of what occurred the night Sharon Tate was murdered and whether you feel it is disrespectful to her to concoct an alternate history with a different outcome. For me, I found it a tad distracting – not nearly as much as the assassination of Hitler and his immediate cronies mind you – but not inappropriate. If Once Upon… is a rose-tinted view of a Hollywood that is at least partly just in the imagination of the director, then he should be allowed to dismiss the historical record for a more convenient Hollywood ending. Then again, the shock of it does disguise how it sort of comes out of nowhere, with the stories of Dalton and Booth not really fitting into Tate’s up to the finale.
Visually, well, it’s a Tarantino film, which means it is going to be great. His eye for detail at every level, his appreciation of mise-en-scene, the way he can capture actors just right and at the right moments, are all on full display. The narrow confines of The Hateful Eight are forgotten in a much more expansive and visually interesting production, perhaps best when panning around the shooting of scenes for contemporary TV shows, something where Tarantino blurs the lines in a way that makes the whole thing that bit more engrossing. And, much to my shock, Tarantino leans back on explosions of blood, gore and crass sexual cinematography, or even language, instead instituting a very surprising policy of “less is more”, a lesson he may be learning a few films too late, but which is very welcome nevertheless. He leaves his standard blood fountain to the conclusion, and only there.
It probably says something about Tarantino and the general quality of his films that I really, really liked Once Upon… and yet would still rank it in his filmography as ahead of only The Hateful Eight and Deathproof. It’s good to be reminded of just how brilliant Tarantino can be in that way, after such disappointment last time out. Perhaps we are heading towards the conclusion of his career, though I doubt he will be willing, as he says, to stop at ten.
But, if we are reaching that terminal point, Once Upon… is an excellent penultimate offering. Tarantino crafts an engaging three-forked narrative that, while it weaves out to some cul-de-sacs, never fails to engross. His gets three wonderful performances out of his leads, with a script that shows his capability, after all these years, to surprise simply by rolling back. It looks great and sounds great. The man has his issues, and it will be impossible for me to ever view Tarantino the way I did at the time of Inglorious Basterds, which I still consider his best. But eight out of nine ain’t bad at all. Once Upon… is a very applause-worthy achievement, and maybe the director has one more in him yet. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Sony Pictures Releasing).