Since his debut feature Reservoir Dogs in 1992, Quentin Tarantino has gone on to be the cultural touchstone of cinephiles of all ages. Veteran film-maker Peter Bogdanovich once dubbed him the “most influential director of his generation”, and it’s hard to argue it. Rarely has a mainstream director’s filmography appeared so spotless. Even his lesser efforts (such as the much-maligned, but underrated Death Proof) are held as shining examples of cinema. Powerhouse that he is, he’s even tackled revisionist history, famously re-writing the ending of WWII in Inglourious Basterds. And here, in his ninth directorial effort, he tries it once more, this time with the touchy and delicate subject of the Tate-Labianca murders at the hands of the Manson family. Though not as one may initially think upon hearing the names Tarantino and Charles Manson.
Washed-up television star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his trusty stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) must overcome social obstacles when they find themselves tossed by the wayside as 1969 Hollywood moves on to a new era, a point hammered in by Dalton’s neighbour, hot new talent Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).
Despite his films gaining a reputation for frenetic violence and fast pacing (an intriguing feat from a bloke who has built a career on long dialogue scenes as a defining trope), Once Upon A Time is decidedly slower in pace, requiring patience and investment from audiences far more than ever before fro QT (although The Hateful Eight did hint at such a development from its obnoxiously long opening title sequence). Characters are lingered on for long periods of time, and are given room to grow with and without dialogue-heavy scenes. As we follow Rick and Cliff throughout two whole days for the first two thirds of the movie, we feel a kinship between them develop, both from the two on screen, but between themselves and the audience.
Which is a relief given the film’s, frankly, uninteresting first fifteen minutes, as we are plonked right into a meeting between Dalton, Booth and Al Pacino’s Marvin Schwarz which serves as a lacklustre character introduction despite featuring some funny asides (“ANYBODY ORDER FRIED SAUERKRAUT?”). But as we get to see them in action, Booth and Dalton grow to be great characters in their own right.
Once Upon A Time… is, as often reported, a much more patient effort from Tarantino, the action taking place over the course of three days (albeit a six-month gap between the second and third), during which we see what each character gets up to. For example; Dalton comes to terms with the state of his career while shooting a pilot for a western TV show, while Booth reflects on how he soured relations with a stunt coordinator. It’s a lingering not often seen in Tarantino flicks, his technique often hewing closer to the anthology method (shocker(!)), than a slow-building story from scratch. Not to say it is totally different from Tarantino’s other work. The violence, the swearing, the crackling dialogue is till there. But rarely has it felt so natural.
With a sprawling cast of seemingly unending big names, it is fair to say that rarely does anyone disappoint. DiCaprio’s Dalton is an insecure wreck, often getting some of the biggest laughs as he struggles to maintain his serious facade. DiCaprio clearly has a ball as Dalton, inhabiting various iconic moments with a natural grace (Tarantino sticks Dalton in The Great Escape at one point), but treading the line between tragicomedy and caricature. Robbie impresses as the much-publicised Sharon Tate whenever she struts onto the screen, nailing just about everything the late actress was about. Sharon Tate was just a normal woman before her death, and Robbie firmly reminds the audience of this with charm and pluck. Pitt, meanwhile, portrays the best damned character in the movie. Cliff Booth is a laconic, southern-drawled, mysterious hunk of man with a possible dark side but a sense of humour to make him lovable. It is almost uncanny how well Pitt fits the role of the monotone muscleman with a heart of gold, and any time spent with him proves to be the most interesting.
For the most part, Once Upon A Time… feels like mature Tarantino, nay, better Tarantino than we’ve seen before. A sequence at Spahn Ranch (the headquarters of the Manson Family) is night close to a straight-up horror film, while his focus on media of the time is hard to categorise as anything but sweet.
But alas, the film falls short. Tarantino’s insistence on playing around with cinema as a form, but it does grow tiresome at times. His sudden addition of narration, care of Kurt Russell, simply feels forced and adds nothing, given he’s telling us EXACTLY WHAT WE’RE SEEING ONSCREEN. Another factor is the lack of unresolved plot-lines that seem set up to some form of payoff. an example; Cliff Booth is widely suspected to have killed his wife, yet nothing really comes of this aside from his unemployment and little else. Now, its perfectly natural that such a case may not ever be fully resolved in real life, but it only feels like something left on the cutting room floor.
Arguably the biggest point of debate about the film is Tarantino’s handling of the infamous Tate-LaBianca murders, on which the film resides. The morality of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’s ending is… foggy, to say the least. His portrayal of the Manson family is refreshingly buffoonish come the night of the murders, but the resolution (which we won’t spoil here) does muddy the waters a little bit. On the plus-side, it’s damned fun. A waterboard of violence largely absent from the film up until this point which feels glorious and hilarious. It also offers Tarantino’s most emotional and sympathetic ending since Kill Bill, and is quite clearly intended as a love letter.
But a love letter to what, exactly? To the 60s? To what could have happened regarding the demise of Ms. Tate? Or is it a love-letter to Tarantino himself? His insertion of his own characters and how they affect the outcome of the story does reek of self-fellation at times, but it is also hard to think of how else such a story could be told. How one interprets it will vary, but it is certainly a polarising conclusion once given serious thought. Had this been in any other director’s hands, the story would have been ridiculed (despite the apparent approval of Tate’s sister).
Nevertheless, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood delivers a newly matured filmmaker’s work without skimping on the cursing, violence, and unrestrained passion his previous work has become so notable for. Though morally murky, and a bit too structurally shaky, it’s hard not to enjoy the ride.