Quentin Tarantino has made a career of immersing himself and his viewers in bygone cinematic genres and time periods.
Whether riffing on the tropes of Japanese and Hong Kong films in Kill Bill, the cheese of big budget World War II blockbusters in Inglorious Basterds, the blacksploitation genre in Jackie Brown, or more recently spaghetti westerns; Tarantino’s encyclopedic knowledge of movies has made him one of if not the best mainstream director of the past twenty years.
His ability to synthesize a genre into a well-written script that celebrates while elevating a generally low-brow category of film is what has made him so endearing and well liked despite his personality and the controversy surrounding his use of cursing, racial dialogue, and violence.
Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is a shining example of why Tarantino is so great while also calling to question what makes him such a controversial figure. Set in Hollywood in 1969, the film showcases three days in the lives of Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (played by a show-stealing Brad Pitt).
Dalton was a big-time television star in the 50’s, starring in a beloved western program and Booth has been his trusty stunt double and best friend. All the while, Dalton’s neighbor, Sharon Tate (played by Margot Robbie) spends time partying with her lover Roman Polanski. Dalton’s proximity to the most famous victim of Charles Manson is the central theme of the film, steadily building to a shocking finale of revisionist history.
The first two hours of Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is the most un-Tarantino movie the director has made. Though the script is sharply written there’s a lack of violence or edgier themes.
Rather than follow a traditional three act structure, it meanders in telling interrelated stories of people with no real story-related goal. Audiences may know where the movie is inevitably headed but this is a slice-of-life that neglects the build-up or structure of a story for the randomness and mundanity of actual living.
From the start, Tarantino asks his audience to immerse themselves in a time capsule vacation to a bygone era and allow Dalton and Booth as tour guides, making stops to meet with Bruce Lee, Steve McQueen, and hippies galore (among others). For much of the trip you will be regaled with the best music of the period, radio commercials, and television programs that build on the authenticity of the setting.
During the trip you get to know your tour guides and grow to love them like no other characters Tarantino has ever written. Rick Dalton is a relic of a bygone era (much like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) relegated to playing villain roles in bad westerns. He is becoming a depressed alcoholic.
In a poignant and memorable scene, he sits with a child co-star who is reading a Walt Disney biography, gushing about the book’s subject while Dalton tells her about the cowboy dime-novel he indulges in about a broken man searching for purpose. Breaking down into tears, the scene not only reflects the frailty of Dalton’s tenuous position in an ever-evolving Hollywood landscape but also the general state of movies currently.
As Disney changes entertainment into a commodity and neglects entertainment as art, filmmakers like Tarantino must be feeling the existential crisis of Dalton. It seems no mistake that on the same weekend that an original picture like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is released, it’s defeated at the box office by a irritatingly transparent cash grab in Disney’s Lion King remake.
Dalton is the heart and soul of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood while Cliff Booth is the brawn. A man who supposedly murdered his wife and early on beats the tar out of Bruce Lee because he’s just that cool, Booth is underpaid, mistreated, and when not playing second fiddle to Dalton, he’s taking care of Dalton’s chores. Despite all that, his loyalty and go-with-the-flow, no-nonsense attitude make for a great foil to Dalton’s emotional outbursts.
The first two hours give a wonderfully mundane yet hilarious and heartfelt look into an alternate history Hollywood that is enjoyable not only for a twenty-something college student like myself but also a theater full of older folks.
At first, I thought I had walked into the wrong movie. But the nostalgia of the movie must have impacted those around me who were glued to the screen as much as myself.
The only reminder that you’re watching a Tarantino movie at first was the indulgent obsession with feet.
That is, until the final half hour. This was the point when I was the only person laughing and having fun because I knew that Tarantino couldn’t walk away from making a movie without his trademark brand of extreme violence. I was expecting things to go sideways regardless of how tame the rest of the picture had been.
Because the film is generally played for laughs, the violence of the third act (if you can call it that) is so delightfully cartoonish yet morbidly unsettling that it is hard not to find it all a joke. The methods of dispatch are gross yet so outlandish and drawn out that they feel like Tarantino not only punctuating the finale with excitement but giving an obscene salute to those who scoff at his propensity for casual violence in his pictures.
Those unprepared will certainly be shocked—meanwhile I could see the smirk on Tarantino’s face as he sat behind the camera and imagined the audience response. I’m sure it was on the money.
Combining great characters with an immersive setting and hilarious riffs on television and movies of the time; Once Upon a Time in Hollywood may be my favorite Tarantino movie.
Though suffering from a couple overlong scenes and questionable use of narration in the later portion, I was never not entertained. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood showcases a filmmaker at the top of his game recreating a time period with so much nostalgia and reverence that it rubs off on the viewer. It’s an absolute must see and the best film I’ve seen this summer.