Once Upon a Time In Hollywood
Stepping back to 1969 with Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, Quentin Tarantino crafts what might be his best film yet.
August 15, 2019
Every Tarantino film has one: an image that so impeccably captures its essence, it instantly symbolises the movie as a whole. In Reservoir Dogs, it arrived via a slow-walking crew of criminals. In Pulp Fiction, it came in the form of a twisting Uma Thurman and John Travolta. In Inglourious Basterds, it could only be Melanie Laurent's unflinching act of rebellion. They're the sights that blaze fiercely with the spirit of their respective pictures, all while burning themselves into viewers' retinas. Set in 1969, as the swinging sixties came to an end and Charles Manson altered Los Angeles forever, Once Upon a Time In Hollywood boasts one also. The honour goes to Margot Robbie's stellar portrayal of Sharon Tate as she sits in a cinema, watching 1968's The Wrecking Crew with a paying audience, and delighting at the crowd's response to her performance.
Crosscut with the antics of Once Upon a Time In Hollywood's two other sublime leads — Leonardo DiCaprio in charmingly crumbling mode as fading TV star Rick Dalton, and Brad Pitt as his stunt double and best buddy Cliff Booth — the movie-going scene ranks among Robbie's longest in the film. The lack of dialogue she utters throughout the picture compared to her male co-stars has sparked some backlash, but it's unwarranted. This is a flick that cuts to the core of its leading lady again and again. Here, Robbie's version of Tate is excited and radiant as she soaks in her cinema experience. In a savvy touch, Tarantino uses genuine snippets from The Wrecking Crew to let everyone soak in the actual Tate, too. And, as we watch Robbie both playing Tate and watching Tate, we feel the character's nerves and exuberance, and understand what's running through her heart and mind. Moreover, we do so while knowing that her real-life fate couldn't clash more starkly with this moment.
It's a startlingly layered scene — all the more so after seeing what comes next — but that's Tarantino's ninth stint as a director in general. It's also warm and thoughtful, in a movie that similarly earns that description. Although such a tone contrasts with the filmmaker's usual hectic, stylised, talky vibe, it shouldn't come as a shock. Once Upon a Time In Hollywood sports a fairytale title, and basks in the glow of Tinseltown from five decades ago. Tarantino fashions a love letter to a period that has definitely passed by, as lensed in sunny hues by his regular cinematographer Robert Richardson. However the picture's feel has another flavour and meaning, as does the energy emanating from Tate's time staring at the big screen. A film of hope, lament, farewell and recognition all in one, it realises that spying the past through rose-coloured lenses and yearning for its comfort amidst upheaval is inevitable. It also knows something just as important: that change is equally inescapable.
Long past his prime-time heyday and only just beginning to realise it between drinks, Dalton isn't coping well with his own evolving status. When a producer (Al Pacino) tells him that he keeps being cast as television villains to bolster the next generation of heroes, and that he should get into spaghetti westerns instead, the actor doesn't take the blunt disclosure well. As Dalton tries to prove that he's capable of more (to himself, mainly), Booth rolls with the punches, despite his own bleak professional prospects. Lately, he's a driver, gofer and righthand man to his famous pal, rather than his stand-in, yet little fazes him. When Dalton starts bubbling with enthusiasm over his new neighbours, Tate and her husband Roman Polanski, Booth barely seems to care. And, when he picks up a hippie hitchhiker (a scene-stealing Margaret Qualley) who's part of Manson's (Damon Herriman) flower child entourage, he enters their unnerving world without breaking a sweat.
History dictates where Once Upon a Time In Hollywood ends up, in a manner. In the revisionist mode that served Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight so well, Tarantino dictates the specific details within his admittedly slim narrative, as well as the time spent luxuriating in them. With no disrespect to his previous films, he's at his most intricate, mature and laidback, crafting a picture — and people within it — that audiences want to spend as much time with as possible. Filled as it is with movies within the broader movie, comic flashbacks and stars galore (such as Kurt Russell, Zoe Bell, Timothy Olyphant, Bruce Dern, Dakota Fanning, Lena Dunham, Luke Perry and Maya Hawke), it's easy to fall in step with the film's rambling pace, enjoying each moment as it arises. Incessantly keen to splash his affection for celluloid history across the screen as always, Tarantino is in his element recreating Hollywood's golden days, its big names and LA's gleaming sights, and nodding to westerns once again.
But, befitting a flick about weathering seismic personal, cultural and societal shifts, Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is a glorious character piece first and foremost. Tate, Dalton and Booth remain the key to the film, and the driving force behind its hangout air. With the often dancing, smiling Tate, Tarantino presents a self-possessed woman content in her skin and life, yet at threat by the darkening tides around her. Through Dalton and Booth, a duo with as many grin-inducing gifts as firm flaws, he finds fractures — some glaring, some hidden — in their facades that mirror the world around them. Exceptional performances assist — including the overflowing delights of pairing up DiCaprio and Pitt for the first time — but perhaps Once Upon a Time In Hollywood's smartest move comes from building such compelling, revealing, deeply felt characters.
The film has character, too. Roving leisurely and unravelling shaggily, it waits a beat to notice a woman's bare feet on a sun-dappled car dashboard. It peers down at an ostensibly abandoned ranch once used for western TV shoots, relishing its beauty even in a display of tension and menace. It revels in the humour of showing Booth jump onto Dalton's bungalow roof in just three bounds, and later during his face-off against Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). These types of flourishes give the movie a different kind of character to Tarantino's usual oeuvre. He's more assured and ambitious, less ego-driven and gimmicky, and more judicious with his expertly choreographed violence and witty banter. Again, that's no slight to a fantastic filmography that also spans Jackie Brown, Kill Bill and Death Proof, but the change of pace suits the writer-director, the era he's wading through and his chosen story perfectly. It also shapes what just might be his best work yet.