Dir: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Kurt Russell, Al Pacino, Dakota Fanning, Emile Hirsch, and Timothy Olyphant
“When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them, ‘no, I went to films.’”
This sentiment from filmmaker Quentin Tarantino is a poignant statement not only for his entire career, but specifically for the ninth feature film from the writer/director “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”. Often times labeled as a film nerd of the highest degree or a cinephile with encyclopedic knowledge, which are both completely true, Tarantino is also a dedicated film historian who is working within all of his films to keep the essence of long-ago filmmaking genre, structure, and style alive.
In “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” the nostalgia for the films and the history that defined the end of the 1960’s and the beginning of the 1970’s for the film industry is present from the first frame and saturated until the final frame. Movie posters loom like skyscrapers over Los Angeles in 1969, Hollywood glows with rich detail and stunning beauty through the lights and architecture of famous landmarks, and real-life movie stars like Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), and Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) weave into Tarantino’s fictional yarn.
It’s a combination of everything that the director has honed and crafted in his style and structure over the course of his career, there are even winks to his past found in both subtle and direct sources on the screen. While it’s undoubtedly a Quentin Tarantino film, “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” is also different from other films in his catalog. This film, in terms of story structure is akin to “Pulp Fiction” while the tone and pace feels most like “Jackie Brown”.
The story here centers on two friends working in the film industry in Los Angeles in the late 1960’s. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the movie star whose leading man status is fading while the changing industry begins to embrace the counterculture movement of the time. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is the stunt man looking for work while helping his buddy Rick as both a personal motivator and occasional handyman. After a meeting with a producer (Al Pacino), an offer to work in Italian spaghetti westerns is offered to Rick who immediately realizes that his status in Hollywood is changing. The traditional hero with the chiseled jawline and neat appearance is being replaced with contemporary tough guys with shaggy hair who dress like hippies. Rick is beside himself while Cliff seems okay with change as long as there is work. It doesn’t help Rick’s ego that he lives on Cielo Drive in Beverly Hills, right next door to new rising starlet Sharon Tate and her husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha).
Tarantino does a fantastic job of contrasting the two lives of Rick and Cliff against the life of Sharon Tate. Rick is grasping for the past throughout the film, struggling to understand the changing times and how he fits into a new era of movie making. Rick has a nasty cough that never seems to go away and a stutter that gets worst when he is forced to embrace the inevitable change that is coming. On the opposite side is Sharon Tate, a rising star full of enthusiasm who is just breaking into the Hollywood system. Seeing her bubbly charm as she dances at a big party, with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars at the time watching her own the dance floor, is as much lovely as it is somber. While Tarantino may weave fiction and fact into his own kind of revisionist history, we as the audience know the fate of Sharon Tate and her close friends at the hands of the Manson family.
The cast in Tarantino’s films are always abundant with familiar faces, the same is true here for the cameos which are incredibly fun. However, the film belongs to Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt who are both fantastic in the roles. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton as an entitled Hollywood actor most concerned about his relevance and the process behind his acting. In one moment, Rick destroys his trailer after messing up his speaking lines on set and the next he’s crying huge tears after a young actor offers words of admiration. DiCaprio is fantastic throughout. Brad Pitt, in one of the best roles of his career, plays Cliff with colossal amounts of coolness but also a hint of danger from a past that may or may not have involved murder. Pitt is phenomenal. Also impressive is Margot Robbie playing Sharon Tate, her performance is charming especially when she sneaks into a cinema to watch “The Wrecking Crew”, the breakout role for Tate.
This is perhaps Tarantino’s most directly reflective film; the auteur is clearly looking back on his place in cinema history amidst the rapid and immense changes that have come along over the course of the director’s career. Tarantino has always been cutting edge in technique and storytelling but the progression of his films has gone from liberal examinations of present matters through foul-mouthed gangsters and sword-wielding assassins and have turned towards conservative genre structures from the past like war films with vengeance-seeking soldiers and western stories featuring six-gun shooting double-crossers.
“Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” has everything that Quentin Tarantino loves about films jam packed into one movie. Yet still, this film feels farthest from the style he is known for. There are still flares of vocabulary, amazing musical cues, and the occasional scene of violence, but the underlying tone in Tarantino’s ninth film is sweeter than anything he has done before. The introspection shown in regards to the aspects of film that Tarantino loves so deeply, that he fights to keep alive, is what gives “Once Upon a Time…” its beating heart. And through the journey of an aging movie star that believes he is becoming a has-been Tarantino deliberates on his own relevance as a filmmaker. It’s a beautiful, somber, and touching film. A fitting finale for one of cinema’s greatest filmmakers.
5.00 out of 5.00