Spoiler Alert: This review reveals details regarding the climax of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Rick Dalton (Leonardo Dicaprio) is a washed up actor reduced to cameos and villain roles. As he contemplates accepting an offer to appear in some low budget Italian films, he and his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) experience the glossy and seedy sides of 1969 Hollywood. But as tragic events involving their neighbour Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) approach, their Hollywood dream seems about to end.
The film’s title is part of a tradition that includes one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite films “Once Upon a Time in the West”. Leone’s film was originally entitled “Once there was the west” a title implying a bygone era that has slipped into mythology and fantasy. Tarantino presents the Hollywood of the 1960s in the same way. Once there was Hollywood and it made westerns and cop shows and Bruce Lee was there and stuntmen really could do everything they do on screen. The film delights not only in Hollywood and it’s buzzing neon but also the films and television of the era. Tarantino directs fictional films and shows staring Dalton, recalling the delights of Grindhouse.
The film spends it’s first two thirds just soaking in this atmosphere, stretching moments as Leone did in his masterpiece. Long sequences offering insight into our lead characters play out without furthering any plot, recalling the structure of Pulp Fiction. Consequently the film feels occasionally aimless without a heist or ambush or any kind of ticking clock for the narrative to build towards. But there are storm clouds on the horizon.
Hearing that Tarantino was planning on making a movie about the Tate murders was very anxiety inducing. The man is not known for subtlety and this horrific crime still has so much emotional heft. It wasn’t hard to imagine a gory exploitation retelling of the murders, and if it was hard to imagine The Haunting of Sharon Tate did it for you. In a playful subversion the action is actually moved away from the Tate house all together and Tarantino’s characters inadvertently make themselves the target of the attack, and prove much more capable of handling themselves than the real life victims. The brutality that is visited upon Tate’s would-be attackers is undeniably cathartic. It’s bleakly comic, very over the top and completely entertaining.
Tarantino is doubtlessly uninterested in any moral questions around this twist on the events of that tragic night. However he is using real emotions generated by a real life tragedy to forge a sense of relief and anger from the audience in a way that is fairly exploitative. It’s impossible to forget throughout these sequences that the real night did not go like this. Bloody violence was done, and innocent people suffered immeasurably. Very much like having Hitler violently assassinated by vengeful Jews in Inglorious Basterds, the Tate murders are gleefully and fantastically dispatched. It’s like being summoned to the Two Minutes Hate. Tarantino even turns the murderers into critics of his work before they attack. “Let’s kill the people who taught us to kill” says one of the attackers, mirroring criticisms Tarantino has faced his whole life that his movies encourage real life violence.
In some ways Tarantino’s lack of interest in any concern outside of his film is liberating. Why not have Bruce Lee behave like an asshole on set and challenge a stuntman to a fist fight. It makes for an entertaining scene, breaks up the dialogue with some action and establishes what Cliff Booth can do physically. The potential insensitivity or accuracy of the sequence is not going to stop Tarantino telling a good story. The film is consistently playful enough to encourage viewers to suspend their disbelief and simply embrace the fantasy. Real world implications will hopefully be staved off until you’ve left the cinema.
Other Tarantino staples are less welcome. Women are filmed largely from shots of their rears, midriffs or feet. Tate herself is undeniably charming but very much de-powered in her narrative. The movie wouldn’t pass Kelly Sue DeConnick’s sexy lamp test. This is in spite of Margot Robbie’s excellent performance as Tate. She manages to capture the mannerisms and accent of the real Tate whilst still exuding her own humanity and warmth. She is very much a part of the romanticised LA being depicted, it’s just a shame that it’s such a superficial part.
Leonardo Dicaprio and Brad Pitt are excellent in their roles. Frequently humorous and very dynamic, it’s a joy to see them on screen together. Pitt in particular is able to shed his big star self-satisfaction and adopts a much more earthly swagger. He carries himself like a man who can handle himself and any situation he finds himself in. He’s a reassuring presence, like a tough old dog. DiCaprio on the other hand is delightfully unhinged, a campy actor at the end of his rope.
For anyone dreading the potential insensitivity of Tarantino’s Sharon Tate project, at the very least you can be assured that Tarantino’s control of the craft and abilities as a storyteller will keep you where you need to be emotionally. It’s a slow burn character piece with a lot to recommend it, and whilst Tarantino may not care what critics and moralists think, his films always give us a lot to think about.