It’s a well known fact that Quinten Tarantino, modern auteur filmmaker and lover of extreme violence and pulpy cinema has stated that his last film will be his 10th, making Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood his penultimate feature. Growing up in Los Angeles in 1969, when this film is very specifically set, clearly had a major effect on the filmmaker, with this being possibly his most personal and patchwork piece to date, pulling way more influences, ideas and actual footage from contemporary films that ever before. This goes a long way in seating us in his wonderfully and meticulously designed world: an endless joy to be a part of.
1969. Hollywood, Los Angeles. The promise of an age of peace & love has taken over the counterculture. It’s a change that some people, such as ageing cowboy star Rick Dalton (Leonardo Dicaprio) and his affable stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), just can’t keep up with, being slowly pushed out in favour of the ‘New Hollywood’. Others, such as up-and-coming beauty Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), are revelling in the revolution, taking full advantage of the chance to finally shine.
If you’re going head first into this with every preconceived notion of what a Tarantino film should be under your belt, you may be in for quite a shock. It’s disarming, seeing yet another R-rated fairytale told in Tarantino’s idea of reality that manages to also be a heartfelt character piece. The excessive violence, quippy dialogue and overtly pulpy sensibility are out of the window. What this Californian odyssey delivers us is an ineffectively paced, seemingly deflated journey of self-reinvention that crescendos disappointingly. But its sense of style, world building and understanding – of not only the specific time period, but the souls within it – might make it Tarantino’s best work to date.
One thing that can’t be disputed is the sheer magnetism between Dicaprio and Pitt. It’s a genuine mystery as to why these two have never been cast as a double act before, with Dalton and Booth being possibly some of the best characters in Tarantino’s entire oeuvre. Everything, from Dalton’s (amazingly visualised) dream of being cast in The Great Escape, to him exclaiming “What the fuck are you looking at, you Dennis Hopper motherfucker?” to a frightened hippy, brilliantly displays the anguish of giving up the Hollywood throne. It’s so believable that Dalton existed in real life as a has-been Cowboy starlet, having to make drastic and embarrassing decisions to save his career, while Booth, his stunt double, is one of the most believable best buddies in recent cinema history. Pitt plays Booth with a comfortable cynicism that would naturally occur over time, content to live in a dirty trailer with his loyal dog, always wondering if the grass is greener on the hippy side.
A la Inglourious Basterds, this film plays with real life figures of history like they’re toys in Tarantino’s sandbox. While Robbie’s Tate is hardly the main focus of the piece (a great shame, as not only does she bear an enticing and eerie resemblance, it might be one of her best performances), the path she goes down is significant. Dedicating enough time to her spiritedness, public perception and personal life, once we catch eyes with her, the audience is so invested in this hyper-real Hollywood Tarantino has created that all the pieces come together. Despite the odd pacing near the beginning and plot threads that seem to be dropped at random, seeing the real Tate in a screening of her swan song film The Wreaking Crew invests you totally into everything going on. Her performance, albeit mainly silent, in a near angelic feat of acting.
Hollywood works very well to set up these brilliant characters, but we really don’t need what seem like near-full episodes of Bounty Law to establish that Rick Dalton, did in fact, star in Bounty Law. Even seemingly interesting character moments with arguably the best character, Pitt’s Booth (just wait for a scene featuring an acid-dipped cigarette), are marred by plot points that go nowhere and deflate the pace, which takes a noticeable while to pick back up. Of course, the ending is what it is all leading to, in what can only be described as the most ‘Tarantino’ Tarantino has been since Inglourious Basterds. It’s cathartic, shocking and pure cinematic magic.
There’s no doubt that technically, the craft here is impeccable. Tarantino never insists on beating the audience over the head with his filmmaking competence, a pitfall many technically accomplished directors seem to be making. His signature character dialogue is so restrained here to a point where the conversations are simply a machine to simply build the world around them. He lets you live there with these troubled icons for a while, before any heavy plot lifting takes place. It’s a love letter to cinema – one of the most detailed and engrossing to hit the big screen in a very long time.
The environment crafted here is pure blood, sweat and celluloid. Taking over entire streets in L.A. and literally transporting them back in time 50 years is a never-ending treat for the eyes, especially if you’ve followed Tarantino’s personal list of suggested films to watch in preparation for this. And it’s that kind of attention to detail, so meticulously interwoven in the script’s cascading plot threads, that make this one of the best films you’ll see all year). It’s one hell of a thrill ride that flashes by and absolutely demands repeat viewings, if only to live in that glorious sun- and blood-drenched world. It’s really far out, man…
Image: Sony Pictures