★ ★ ★
“If the film is a case of style over substance, the style is Tarantino’s best yet”.
The problem with a new release from Quentin Tarantino – widely considered to be an esteemed auteur and generally (for better or for worse) praised to the point of worship by film students and critics alike – is the inevitable opportunity for disappointment, especially considering the will-he-won’t-he discourse surrounding his industry retirement. If you’ve seen a Tarantino feature before, you can safely bet on the presence of a few things: hyper-stylistic sets, long, lingering scenes of conversations which burst to the brim with tension, a wildly violent and indulgent finale, and lots of bare (women’s) feet. The director’s ninth film (if you count both Kill Bill volumes as one, as he does) features all of these components. Only this time, Tarantino has stepped back and taken a slow, meandering journey through 1960s L.A., more concerned with character studies than with overblown violence.
Leonardo DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, an ageing film star with anxieties about his deteriorating career, while Brad Pitt is his stunt man, driver and best friend, Cliff Booth. Rick and Cliff control the narrative, being granted the in-depth backstories and ample screen time that many characters in Tarantino’s previous features are denied, partly due to the ensemble cast usually favoured by the director. Alongside Pitt and DiCaprio, there’s Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, wife of esteemed director Roman Polanski, living just next door to Rick.
As the fairytale title suggests, Tarantino imagines a world where the events of 8th August 1969 – on which members of Charles Manson’s ‘family’ brutally murdered a heavily pregnant Tate and four of her friends – went very differently. In contrast to the less-than-subtle revision of history that concludes 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, Tate’s narrative here is handled with deft and care, the imagined parallel world making for a heartfelt final scene. Robbie plays the actress with an endearing, wide-eyed innocence and a wholesome lust for life, gleefully watching her own film in the cinema to gauge the audience’s reaction. While Tate’s dialogue is sparse – and we all remember the ’hypothesis’ Tarantino swiftly rejected at Cannes when quizzed by a reporter on Robbie’s lines – her scenes are the most captivating. DiCaprio is likewise perfectly cast as an actor dwindling away from his prime, with Rick often providing the film’s comic relief. And between cruising around the city in a Cadillac, Pitt’s Cliff spends one of the film’s longer, Tarantino-esque scenes following Margaret Qualley’s free-spirited hippy ‘Pussycat’ to the ranch which we know is the home of Manson’s cult, played here by Lena Dunham, Austin Butler and Dakota Fanning, among others.
If Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is a case of style over substance, the style is Tarantino’s best yet. Set against the backdrop of a sun-soaked 1969 Hollywood (the year of Woodstock and the height of America’s bohemian counterculture movement), the film’s visuals are a joy to watch. From the dreamy costume design to the over-saturated colour palette, it’s a joy that is clearly shared with the director, who indulges in long, winding shots of a Cadillac’s journey through halcyon Hollywood streets, the camera drifting in and out of the car’s interior. Dubbed as Tarantino’s ‘love letter’ to Tinseltown, the aesthetically pleasing setting of the ‘60s was certainly a wise choice, as was the film’s subject matter, considering Charles Manson’s long stint in pop culture’s glaring spotlight, not to mention society’s collective obsession with cults and serial killers. But with the majority of the narrative focussing on Pitt and DiCaprio’s ageing Hollywood men, to whom not that much really happens, the runtime of almost three hours becomes tiring. With the violent finales of Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, the satisfying pay-off came from the audience having spent over two hours invested in the multiple, interwoven narrative strains, that finally all piece together by the climax. In Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, the same can’t be said, simply because the plot is nowhere near as complex as it is in Tarantino’s previous work. The film’s climax is the most fast-paced and complex scene, as we the most memorable, since the majority of scenes before it rely more on stylistic visuals than depth of plot.
There’s been a lot of discourse on the internet recently concerning the treatment of women in Tarantino’s films. Some have called for a boycott of the director, others have celebrated him as a decidedly feminist filmmaker, and many have contested that the argument is much too nuanced to make sweeping statements or simply ‘cancel’ him. I remain in the latter camp. Watching Inglourious Basterds for the first time as a teenager, Melanie Laurent’s portrayal of Shoshanna Dreyfuss was one of the first depictions of a multi-faceted, complex woman I’d seen in a film. In that film, especially, the bulk of the violence is also reserved for the male characters, who are subjected to scalpings, obliterated genitals and death by baseball bat. In Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’s violent climax, a male character is subjected to a painful end, but its screen time pales in comparison to the women’s deaths, one of which is tortured in three separate and equally horrific ways. The violence, as always in Tarantino’s films, can be justified by the audience because the characters ‘deserved it’; while Django Unchained punished slave owners and Inglourious Basterds saw the Nazis burn, here the focus is on members of the Manson cult. They clearly don’t deserve sympathy (nor have they received it – one member, Patricia Krenwinkel, is the longest-serving female inmate in California), but this didn’t make the inevitable sniggering from the audience at my screening, as a woman is “burned to a crisp” by DiCaprio, any less uncomfortable.
As Tarantino films go, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood follows the rulebook. There’s fairly graphic violence, an offscreen narrator, lengthy scenes in one location, and the most gratuitous amount of women’s feet of all his previous films put together. The fact that the film spends more time on the minutiae of Cliff and Rick’s lives than anything else marks a stark change in the director’s filmmaking style, and with the dreamy Los Angeles surroundings as its setting, it makes sense to choose this film to make the change. But as Tarantino’s supposedly penultimate feature, it feels like a strange place in his filmography to begin slowing the pace. Still, while the journey towards Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’s explosive finale may take its time, it’s not an unpleasant journey to be on, even if even if it does leave you wishing for a little more.
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Producers: Quentin Tarantino, David Heyman, Shannon McIntosh
Cast: Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Margot Robbie, Margaret Qualley, Al Pacino, Luke Perry, Dakota Fanning, Kurt Russell, Damian Lewis, Emile Hirsch, Lena Dunham, Austin Butler, Maya Hawke, Bruce Dern
Release Date: 14thAugust 2019