There are not many filmmakers in history who’ve influenced the industry as much as Quentin Tarantino; nearly thirty years after Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino remains one of the few filmmakers who have never compromised, whose films still feel like events, and whose choices and style feel distinctive in a way that still inspires imitators. Tarantino will be debated forever, and really he has nothing to prove because the films speak for themselves.
I don’t think Tarantino was trying to prove anything in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but this clearly feels like the sign of a matured filmmaker. This isn’t a deliberate change of pace- there’s still all the snappy dialogue, long set pieces, bold music choices, and dark humor you’d expect from Tarantino film, but more than anything this is a hangout film about the end of an era. It’s not my place to judge whether or not this is a personal film, but this feels like his most sincere work- there’s an inherent sadness to the passing of Golden Age of Cinema and the supposed “Era of Innocence” in this country.
The year is 1969 and Hollywood is in a transition of change, with hippie culture taking to the streets and movie stars fading from prominence. Former western actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) feels as if his career is over as he’s subjected to secondary parts as he struggles with alcoholism, with his longtime parter and stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) struggling more than ever as his selfish friend ignores him. Rick reminisces about what his career could have been as he observes his neighbor, the illustrious movie star Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who is married to filmmaker Roman Polanski.
The phrase “love letter” is used a lot, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood seeks to put us directly in the midst of what 60s cinema is. The film’s loose structure allows Tarantino to directly involve us in the story, with the long clips of the projects Rick is involved with taking on a life of their own and managing to be riveting on their own. When Tarantino pulls back the curtain on the world of cinema, it’s through the eyes of the film itself; the semi-parodical, semi-serious musings about actors getting lost in their roles comes from eight year old child actor, and in one brilliant scene we see Rick and Cliff commenting on a past project as the film is shown to us, breaking the fourth wall without breaking the guise of the story.
This is similarly used when Sharon Tate goes to a theater to observe the audience reaction to one of her films; her utter delight at the audience’s enjoyment could be observed as an argument for the communal filmgoing experience, a defense of the movie star idea, or just a representation of the innocence that was lost in the country at the tail end of the 60s.
This is also perhaps the funniest thing Tarantino has ever written; due to the hangout structure, the film allows for the characters to simply navigate between misadventures, from a hilarious appearance by Bruce Lee to Rick’s tumultuous experiences remembering his lines for a shoot. It’s based on history, but this is very clearly Tarantino’s version of history; the admiration for the era is there, as evidence by the often indulgent interior and exterior car shots done in a style similar to 60s films, and Cliff and Rick fit seamlessly within what we understand history to be.
Despite the rewriting of history in points, this never feels like broad satire, which is why I feel that this is Tarantino’s most sincere piece. There’s a purity to how Tate’s life is shown, how her every day is filled with pleasure in simple moments and the energy in which she infuses her environment. While the joke behind the Cliff and Rick relationship is clear (Rick is self destructive and complains, but Cliff is the poor one who’s been long suffering), there’s also a genuine sincerity between these friends.
Leonardo DiCaprio is perhaps my favorite actor, living or otherwise, and this is a often surprising performance- Rick is simultaneously funny and sad, cool and pathetic, and there’s a charm to his self-indulgent determinism that detracts from his often toxic behavior. Perhaps there’s a touch of self-parody in Rick’s pursuit of stardom and disregard for others, but DiCaprio makes the selfish nature endearing in how committed he is.
As for Pitt, this is a masterful comedic performance; Cliff is blunt in his line delivery, and the joy he takes in disrupting stable environments is ironically countered towards his consistent service to Rick, who views him as a best friend but never takes the time to help him. Early on in the film, we see both Cliff and Rick return to their respective homes, and the contrast couldn’t be more clear, both in their class status and their attitudes.
The end of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a simple masterpiece in channeling history and style into a cohesive voice; we know what events in history have to occur and we feel like we know how the third act of a Tarantino movie will play out, but the film manages to subvert both ideas whilst fulfilling both. The build up fills us with a sense of perpetual dread because of history, with the more extreme Tarantino events coming in in just the right moments to add humor and shocks. Without spelling out how the film closes, it suggest something profound that Tarantino has never attempted before- it’s a audacious move from a filmmaker who always knows how to surprise us. Grade: A+