Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood is a fairy tale set in a land of make believe that is on the brink of change. It is both Quentin Tarantino’s loving farewell to the Golden Age of Hollywood and his problematic reckoning with the social climate of today.
Tarantino’s films have always embraced the villains in society, the individuals who our morals say we should not root for, but we do anyways. Most of these people have been bank robbers, hitmen and assassins. However, in Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood his complicated antiheroes hit closer to home. They are the self-absorbed men who are the gatekeepers of communities and industries. The ones who remain ignorant to the world outside their affluent bubble and, despite their numerous blunders, still get rewarded for maintaining the status quo.
If there is one person who personifies the oblivious insulated nature of Hollywood in 1969 it is actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). The former star of the 1950’s television series Bounty Law, Dalton’s career has fallen on tough times. While this realization reduces Dalton’s self-confidence, his longtime stunt double and official driver Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) views things through a glass half-full lens.
After all there is a producer, Marvin Schawarz (Al Pacino), who wants to cast the actor as the lead in an Italian Western; and Dalton has his posh home on Cielo Drive right beside famed director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his actress wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Frankly he is doing far better than Booth, whose career has never been the same since he was accused of killing his wife.
It is Dalton’s need for constant reassurance and Booth’s desire to be wanted that serves as the framework for Tarantino’s love letter to Hollywood. Their bromance, which is based on a bond that is “more than a brother and a little less than a wife,” serves as our tour guide through studio backlots, the neon-soaked theatres on the strip and the star-studded parties of La-La land.
As we follow the duo throughout their daily encounters, the presence of Charlie Manson (Damon Herriman) and his disciples linger around the fringes of the film like an unshakable dark shadow getting increasingly closer. It is in these moments when the divide between the haves and sinister have nots is most palpable. However, it slowly becomes clear that Tarantino has no interest in exploring the Manson Family’s impact on Hollywood.
Filtered through the strainer of Tarantino’s revisionist history lens, the Manson Family is merely a vessel to set up a jaw-dropping ending that is darkly funny and disturbing with equal measure. Sharon Tate may have been a victim of the family in real-life, but in the world of Tarantino she embodies the idealistic notion of Hollywood. She is a beautiful object who finds pleasure in bringing joy to the masses; but is unaware of the dirt beneath her feet.
The dirt in this case are the dumpster diving “hippies” whose only value seems to be tied to their sexuality. This is most evident when observing both Booth’s attraction to the free-spirited Pussycat (Margaret Qualley); and the way the tension at the Spahn Ranch is temporarily defused when Booth learns of the arrangement ranch owner George Spahn (Bruce Dern) has agreed to. Even in these volatile dynamics sex and power are firmly dictated by men.
Which is why men like Dalton and Booth are repeatedly allowed to trip on the escalator of life and still be propelled upwards.
If it was up to Tarantino’s conservative view of masculinity, the social discourse of today’s #MeToo era would have been avoided had the Dalton’s of the world simply taking a flamethrower to anything that threaten the power structure in the 1960s. The closing shot, where the metaphorical gates of heaven are opened to reward doing the bare minimum, only further emphasizes this.
Though Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood offers some messy jabs at the hypercritical climate we now live in, it is a Tarantino film first and foremost. Tarantino’s recreation of Hollywood in the 1960s is a vibrant, but scattered, collage of the films, shows and commercials that defined the era. The filmmaking artistry on display is quite something as one literally feels like they are the camera person on Dalton’s set at one point. Even Tarantino’s numerous detours, take the comedic Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) sequence for example, are captivating in segments.
While the pacing of the first half feels more akin to the works of Robert Altman or Paul Thomas Anderson, where various characters intersect creating a mosaic of Los Angeles, the film never quite reaches those heights. Unlike Tarantino’s previous works, the film’s entertaining fragments do not smoothly blend into a cohesive whole.
Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood’s languid pacing may hint at Tarantino going for something deeper, but the film ultimately swims in shallow waters.