The majority of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood takes place over a few days in February during 1969. We follow fading star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his long-time stunt double and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Ever since Rick’s hit show Bounty Law was cancelled, his stardom has fallen and he has come to the sad realisation that he’s a ‘has-been’ in an industry that’s moving past him. While he could’ve been on par with fellow movie star Steve McQueen, his career now largely consists of guest spots on popular television shows. Cliff on the other hand is charming, oozes cool and never seems flustered. He’s the friend who stops Rick from perennially wallowing in self-pity. There’s a real platonic love between the two. The other key detail is that Rick’s neighbours just happen to be Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha). You know what happens to the former in August 1969…
It feels odd not having a Tarantino film where the story is driven by revenge, violence or sinister motives. While his last film, The Hateful Eight, was filled with largely awful human beings, here we are greeted with a likable, charming and loving duo who just want to find their place in an ever-changing Hollywood landscape. It’s essentially a hangout movie that isn’t driven by strict plot machinations. I’m confident that viewers are going to be frustrated by its relatively aimless story, and many will complain that it’s boring and dull. Yet, I was completely on board with what Tarantino was trying to achieve, because this is not a film which is supposed to be driven by a concrete story. What this film does is give us a glimpse into a fairy-tale version of Hollywood and the entertainment business surrounding it—conveyed through the eyes of Rick and Cliff.
Tarantino is known for being an avid cinephile and it’s clear from all of his works that he is particularly inspired by classic ‘60s cinema. It’s no more obvious than in this film. Every little pop culture detail feels essential. Again, it’s like glimpsing into Tarantino’s brain, where he can reflect on an era which he so clearly loved and was inspired by its art.
A large amount of the discourse surrounding the film will involve the Manson cult, who are interspersed throughout. They’re nearly impossible to discuss without giving away a key element of why they work, but if you’re privy with Tarantino’s previous films surrounding historical events, I think you will be satisfied with how they’re placed into the context of this story and the idealised world that’s been created.
In true Tarantino fashion post-Reservoir Dogs, the film is extremely lengthy, clocking in at 161 minutes. However, like in most of his works, the characters are so layered and personality-filled and his dialogue is so engaging that the lengthy runtime was no problem whatsoever. Even a small scene with Rick sitting in his living room with Cliff and watching an episode of The F.B.I. is so engaging and entertaining because both characters are so enjoyable to watch; their camaraderie is so palpable.
We meet Rick at his home and see a giant movie poster laying in the driveway—it’s a painting of his face getting smashed in by a boot. It sums up Rick as a character to a T. He’s a bit of a goofball, but you can’t help but feel sympathetic for him. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton with so much brilliant subtlety and nuance. It’s a heartbreaking performance which, at its core, is about a person who is realising his worth—or lack of—as a person. While there is real emotional layers to the character, DiCaprio still nails all the physical comedy associated with Rick’s goofball tendencies. Brad Pitt also delivers effortlessly charismatic work as Cliff Booth. This is a character who always feels like the coolest guy in the room, and Pitt is the perfect actor to sell that. Just like DiCaprio, all his comedy—especially physical—is a joy to watch. Margaret Qualley as a member of the Manson cult, and young Julia Butters playing one of Rick’s Lancer co-stars, both deliver noteworthy, scene-stealing turns respectively.
Sharon Tate’s presence in the narrative is an interesting one. She’s definitely not as prominent as I was expecting, but her role is necessary to provide the context of the time period and the events that will inevitably take place. Tarantino clearly wants Tate to exude a real charm and innocent star quality. She is the human embodiment of this era’s allure, and Robbie’s bubbly enthusiasm sells that effectively. One of the film’s most tender scenes is when Tate watches a film she’s starring in with a packed audience in a cinema. It’s a moment which celebrates cinema and the joy it brings people. Tarantino’s love for cinema is shown in plain sight throughout the whole film—and this scene realises that notion perfectly.
As expected, it’s dazzlingly shot by Robert Richardson. The whole film radiates a sense of warmth visually that can only relate to a city like Los Angeles. The utilisation of 8mm and 16mm lenses to capture scenes from Rick Dalton’s previous works only emphasises the brilliant attention to what we’ve come to expect from a filmmaker like Tarantino.
His directorial hallmarks are obviously present: sharp dialogue, lots of feet, bloody and brutal violence with a darkly comedic edge and a fantastic retro soundtrack. And yet, he pushes himself beyond the instincts that he so often clings to, creating a film that is more mellow and subtle than you’d expect.
Tarantino loves diving into specific genres in each one of his films, whether it be the crime film with Reservoir Dogs, the Spaghetti Western with Django Unchained, or the contained thriller with The Hateful Eight. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is different.
On the surface, this is a film of his that is least inspired by a certain genre to date. It’s essentially a straight-up comedy-drama on the surface, yet much of the film’s overt genre inspirations come from the texts within the film itself. Tarantino’s overt love for westerns comes through in the scenes showing snippets and behind-the-scenes details of the shows Bounty Law and Lancer. The former being a fictional show within the film’s universe, the latter being a real show which was led by James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant). Seeing Rick angrily torch a group of Nazis with a flamethrower in one of his old films was a great call back to Inglourious Basterds. A scene with Cliff visiting the Spahn Ranch with the Manson cult shows for the umpteenth time how great Tarantino is at creating a tension-fuelled sequence.
I’m sure Once Upon a Time in Hollywood will create a divide. It’s less about pushing a propulsive narrative forward and more about observing the nuances and behaviour of our main characters at key moments. Whether it’s Rick going through the acting process on an episode of Lancer, Cliff going to Spahn Ranch and seeing how it’s been taken over by the Manson cult, or Sharon simply spending an afternoon at the cinema, it’s a true celebration of a bygone era. It’s an era that feels like it’s been created out of memory—a Hollywood filled with exuberance, hipness, colour, optimism and sunshine. Unfortunately, it was an age that had to end, but I’m glad Tarantino gave a chance to see it in all its glory.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is out in cinemas now!