Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Review: The ninth film from Tarantino is an ode to Hollywood and an absolute masterpiece
There really are many filmmakers, and they’re probably won’t be any, like Quentin Tarantino. From the incredible way he tells stories to the incredible characters that let actors give uniquely compelling performances, his films are truly one of a kind. Tarantino has always displayed his passion for filmmaking through his films by tackling different genres, always implementing filmmaking techniques in the genre into his films, creating scenes that viewers would never forget. So, when the ninth film from Tarantino, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, was finally making its way into theaters, my excitement was palpable. Not only is this film encompassing the style and atmosphere of the exiting of the golden age of Hollywood and the Manson murders, but Tarantino has also said that this could be his last time in the director’s chair.
If Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is truly Tarantino’s last effort as a director, it’s a film that perfectly embodies his love for medium. Right from the start, the aesthetics immediately hook you and it’s easy to sense the amount of detail that Tarantino implements to create an authentic reimagining of late 1960s Hollywood. Whether it was the grainy frames of older films or the art style and names of movie posters that he created for the film, you can feel that Tarantino went to the nitty gritty detail to take viewers back in time. The use of older logos for iconic brands, like Taco Bell, Good Humor Ice Cream, and NBC, especially help viewers connect back to that time and the way he uses music to transition scenes evoke feelings in its viewers. Even when characters are just driving from place to place, songs really make the scene and set the tone for how viewers are supposed to feel. Just thinking back to how the film introduces the Manson family members, the song they sing and how they sing it immediately makes you recognize them as a creepy and eerie force without the name “the Manson Family” even having to be directly associated with them.
Even just being on the film’s Western sets adds this sense of authenticity and it’s interesting to see so many familiar and modern-day greats blend so well in old film or that 60’s TV look. When Leonardo DiCaprio is shown to be a part of an episode of an old crime show or his character’s hit Western, Bounty Law, it’s like you are actually watching something from that time and actors blend in really well. It’s actually crazy how actors like DiCaprio and Timothy Olyphant blends so perfectly into the old style of filmmaking. There’s a scene where DiCaprio is standing in for Steve McQueen in The Great Escape and he literally looks perfectly added to the scene and there’s no distraction or noticeable difference of him being there, obviously other than that DiCaprio clearly isn’t McQueen. The resemblance of some of the non-fictious people to their real-life counterparts is just uncanny. All of this legitimately shows how strong this cast of actors is and how masterful Tarantino is as a director. Tarantino’s attention to detail is just remarkable and is something that can’t go unnoticed or be under-appreciated.
Speaking of DiCaprio, he puts in the performance of a lifetime here and his chemistry with Brad Pitt is just an absolute joy. As Rick Dalton, a struggling actor whose long-standing career as a TV Western hero is coming to a drastic close at the times change, DiCaprio both captures the heart of viewers through one of his most genuine and heartfelt performances and the actual closing struggle of Westerns in general. While Dalton has a bit of an ego with him mostly focusing on himself and being the best that he can be, there’s something that you kind of respect about him. He’s definitely the type of person who’s insulted by roles that he doesn’t feel are up to his standard, as he’s disgusted by the fact that he’d be offered for “Spaghetti Westerns,” but there’s a genuine love and commitment for his work that hard not to be appreciative for. He doesn’t even necessarily treat those around them like crap, he doesn’t understand how to appreciate them. The film is really his journey to finding fame again and appreciation for those around him and it’s an easy-going, enjoyable ride to see.
From him going through scenes of the new show he’s guest starring on to even the more quiet moments of him sitting at home practicing his lines through a recording he made, a detail that I absolutely adored about him, DiCaprio pulls all of Rick’s journey off in a truly genuine light. With every moment that he’s kind of full of himself, DiCaprio creates one where he can make viewers laugh. Every time he delivers a serious line in whatever scene he’s doing on one of Dalton’s shows for whatever character he’s playing, there’s an equally funny scene of him asking for a line or beating himself up for not being his best. It’s just an incredibly balanced and well-rounded performance from DiCaprio that lets the complexity of Tarantino’s character writing shine through. His arc of being saddened that his ride as a top-name actor to appreciating those around him is great and the struggles he faces also represent the struggle of Westerns. Back in the golden age of Hollywood, Westerns were revered as one of the most dominant genres but has since faded from prominence. Don’t get me wrong, certain films, like Logan and Toy Story 4, still use Western story structure, but the days of the white hat cowboy are gone. It’s interesting to see Tarantino tackle this story through Dalton’s journey and it makes the film’s focus on Westerns even more compelling.
Pitt also gives a stunning performance as Dalton’s stunt-double, Cliff Booth, and his performance might actually be both my favorite of the film and of Pitt’s career. He’s got that grisly charm that Pitt brings to most of his performances, but it mixes perfectly with Cliff’s more rough and tough attitude as a stuntman and his genuine desire to be a part of the industry. Not only does this performance from Pitt create someone that viewers can connect to, but it creates some of the most incredibly fun and funny moments of the film. Cliff fighting against Mike Moh as the legendary Bruce Lee has a tenseness that’s eased by it’s over the top nature and Moh gives a wonderful performance that brings the martial arts master back onto the screen in the most amazing fashion. While on the subject of Lee, it was actually interesting to see him training actors throughout the film, just as he did when he was in Hollywood, and Tarantino uses these small elements to create a greater sense of the world that’s always great to see. Cliff’s story also delves into introducing the Manson family ranch and the shots of him walking through their area are straight out of a horror movie. However, even though he knows that he’s in rough spot, Pitt never shows it and it gives viewers a comforting figure to walk through such an unnerving area. It’s also worth mentioning that Margaret Qualley as Pussycat is excellent in her scenes with Pitt and the two have magnetic chemistry.
However, there’s no bond or chemistry that’s stronger in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood than the connection between DiCaprio and Pitt. These two perfectly showcase the strong bond and care for one another and there’re great moments of them just hanging around to give their friendship some emotional weight. There’s a great scene of them just watching Rick on a TV Show and commenting over that viewers will definitely relate to and it leads to a moment that’s a little heart-breaking. These two also make the film’s surprising Manson family finale one of Tarantino’s most gruesome and hilarious and viewers will never forget it. After seeing these two on-screen together like this, not only do they need to be at the forefront of the conversations about the awards possibilities, but I need see more film with them together ASAP.
Now, like Tarantino, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood isn’t without its faults. Personally, and this just a nitpick, I didn’t care for Kurt Russell’s narration as I found it confusing because he also plays a physical character in the film and I’m not sure if there’s a connection. I’m sure there’s not, but I think it could’ve been a good opportunity for Tarantino to do it himself, since he’s done it before in The Hateful Eight. I’m also a little perplexed as to why Tarantino felt the need to include real-life figures like Sharon Tate and the Manson, when they didn’t really add much to the overall experience. In the case of Margot Robbie’s Tate, Robbie really captures the bubbly and joyful personality of Tate and the scene of her watching Tate in The Wrecking Crew is sort of a perfect tribute. Most of the time when you mention Tate’s name, most people just immediately associate her to Polanski or the Manson murders rather than her filmography, so it was nice to see Tarantino take the time to show her as an actress. Like I said before, the Manson family is showcased just as eerily creepy as should be and the fact that their endearing yet underlying evil nature is portrayed so well in the film shows that Tarantino definitely does his homework.
However, I just can’t shake the feeling of their inclusions helping, yet also drastically hurting the film, especially its ending. On one hand, having their names and persona be a part of the story definitely adds something for viewers to connect to and a sense of realism to the world. On the other hand, though, these connections can set up expectations in the viewers minds about what they expect to see that the Tarantino isn’t trying to meet. The film is more of a “what if” scenario and Tarantino’s imagining of 1969 Hollywood and while it does lead to a legitimately surprising finale, the fact that it is the finale sort of left me feeling unsatisfied. It’s not bad or anything like that and I actually love how it comes off like a Twilight Zone kind of moment through character’s reactions and the score. However, the film’s ending can seem abrupt and leaves viewers feeling like the film is unfinished because of its connections to the real world. Honestly, there’s nothing too special about Tate’s story or Damon Harriman’s Manson that warrant their appearances and it’s almost like Tarantino wrote characters that were familiar enough to them that he ultimately decided to just make them the real people so that he wouldn’t constantly face comparisons. It’s definitely possible that Tarantino wanted to use the real people to misdirect viewers, which definitely works if that’s the case, but I do find myself wishing that Tarantino played with them more and made them larger parts of the film.
Where Tarantino impresses me the most with this film, though, is how he actually overcomes some of the issues I have had in seeing his films. Though the film has the more structure-less storytelling and long runtime of almost three hours, this is probably one of the easiest watches of Tarantino’s career. The film is super easy to follow, even with it switching between perspectives and delving into flashbacks, and it honestly could’ve been thirty to forty minutes longer and I would’ve been fine watching it. He makes conversations more action oriented by adding more elements to them to make them more than just people talking. Whether it’s having music playing or cutting to something that they’re talking about, Tarantino perfectly breaks up long conversations to always keep viewers engaged. He also includes so much rich detail, fun moments, and just plain amazing performances that make a re-watch an absolute breeze and definite must. Not to mention, there’s a great post-credit scene that fans of Tarantino will absolutely rave over.
Tarantino has created another masterpiece with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood that cannot be missed and is definitely one of my favorite films that he’s brought to theaters. It’s an ode to the end of an era of Hollywood and if it’s his last film as a director, it’ll be a pleasant way for him to go out. The true cherry on top would be for Tarantino and company to clean up come awards season, so I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that he can be awarded for the passion and love for film that’s displayed all over this film.