Image Credit: Columbia Pictures Corporation
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie
Length: 2hr 41min
Director Quentin Tarantino is one of maybe half a dozen directors whose name still carries cultural capital amongst mainstream audiences. The anticipation for his newest film, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is compounded by an almost four-year wait from his last release (the lukewarm and tedious The Hateful Eight) and the first ever onscreen pairing of Hollywood megastars Leonardo DiCaprio as fading TV star Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt as Dalton’s mysterious, cagey stunt double Cliff Booth. Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Damian Lewis, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, and Margaret Qualley round out a typically star-studded cast from Tarantino.
We can approach this film by dividing Tarantino’s filmography into two very general and often overlapping camps – first are his genre pastiches (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill[s]) and second his revisionist period pieces (Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained). Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood falls into the latter category; Tarantino’s fictional creations in the form of DiCaprio and Pitt rub shoulders with real historical Hollywood figures such as Steve McQueen, Bruce Lee, and the tragic Sharon Tate in and around the backlots of 1969 Hollywood. At first glance, it’s somewhat of a baffling time period for Tarantino to choose, as Hollywood films during this era were generally a creative doldrum, caught between the old masters of the studio system and the film brat generation that typified New Hollywood during the 1970s. It soon becomes apparent that Tarantino’s real interest lies not in this transitional period of Hollywood (although this is broached with regards to the freefall of Rick Dalton’s career) but the character of actress Sharon Tate and her tragic murder at the hands of Charles Manson’s followers.
Most of the trappings we’ve come to expect from a Tarantino film are present – snappy dialogue, foul mouthed characters and memorable music cues. DiCaprio’s washed up TV star Rick Dalton pitches wildly between tragedy and comedy, mostly to good results. DiCaprio’s best sequence is 15 minutes in the film’s centre, when the alcoholic Dalton has to shake off a hangover, retreat to his trailer for a pep talk after he blows his lines in front of the crew, and return to set to crush the following scene. It’s a clever and effective vignette of a man on the downward slide of his career but still determined to preserve his dignity. Margot Robbie isn’t given much of a character arc as Sharon Tate, but it’s hard to criticise her for imbuing Tate with a wide-eyed and naïve energy. For my money, the best of the cast was Brad Pitt as stuntman Cliff Booth – the role is able to showcase Pitt’s underutilised range, and Pitt deftly juggles drama, action, comedy, and romance while maintaining a uniform character. One article I read described Pitt as a natural character actor trapped in the career of a leading man, a conclusion that’s hard to disagree with after spending almost three hours with the character of Booth.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is not without flaws. The film is meandering; about a quarter of the scenes are noticeably sluggish on the first watch alone. This has been an especially prominent problem for Tarantino since the death of his editor Sally Menke in 2010 – since her passing, Tarantino’s subsequent three films have all been the longest of his career, and the shortest of these three clocks in at 161 minutes. The case for Menke as the Gordon Lish to Tarantino’s Raymond Carver, polishing and sharpening his work to save the artist from their indulgences, grows with each bloated release.
It’s also difficult to elicit Tarantino’s ultimate message from the film. He makes vague overtures to self-reflexivity in the third act – one of Manson’s deranged followers, in an unhinged monologue, suggests they murder Dalton as an emancipating act of “killing those who taught us to kill” in a reference to violence on TV. Critics of Tarantino’s have repeatedly broadsided him throughout his career over what they deem gratuitous and damaging violence in his films, and the climax acts as his would-be riposte, a gory and disturbingly violent scene that shifts gears from humorous to horrifying as it continues. In this scene, Tarantino seems to be asking his critics where the line is between acceptable and unacceptable onscreen violence, but is that really all the preceding two and a half hours has been building towards? It’s ultimately not as effective as the theatre scene in Inglourious Basterds, which explores similar thematic territory.
At the beginning of his career, during what I earlier called his “genre pastiche” period, Tarantino drew comparisons to French director Jean-Luc Godard for his postmodern approach to genre and storytelling conventions. Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs do share similarities to Godard’s playful genre inversions such as Alphaville and Bande à part, but nowadays this comparison is almost laughable. Since Pulp Fiction, Tarantino has by and large continued to make the same sort of film, while post-1968 Godard has formed and dissolved the radically Marxist Dziga Vertov filmmakers group in the 1970s, produced increasingly abstract and non-narrative films throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and in the 21st century remains at the cutting edge of esoteric cinema and experimental digitalfilmmaking.
At this point of his career, it seems as unrealistic for us to expect Tarantino to deliver a taut 100-minute film as it is for him to start experimenting with formal and narrative conventions in the same manner Godard chose. In Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, the characters and setting are a pleasure to inhabit, the story delivers memorable scenes, and we see two of the biggest actors working together for the first time – at the end of the day, isn’t that all that matters to most?