While Tarantino's ninth film isn't without familiar flaws, it serves as a stunning love letter to '60s Hollywood featuring a glorious dynamic duo in DiCaprio and Pitt.
And so, Quentin Tarantino is back. His ninth film comes at a peculiar time in his career. Following the release of back-to-back westerns Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, by his own proclamation he only had two films left to go until retirement. Thus, subsequent projects have been the subject of much speculation and anticipation with rumours that he could direct a Star Trek as his last film. For now, we have Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It was initially touted as the culmination of his desire to make a movie centred on the Manson Family murders, but the finished product proves to be about much more than just that. It’s a love letter to the city he grew up in, Los Angeles, as well as a dazzling odyssey through a time when Classical Hollywood was transitioning into the New (Hollywood) era. The studio system was dying, with a different type of star beginning to steal the spotlight from the old guard. With a starry cast to really sell the performances, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino’s best film since Inglourious Basterds.
Hollywood follows struggling television actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick was the star of (fictitious) cowboy show Bounty Law, but, after having a part to play in its cancellation, now finds himself typecast in guest stints as disposable villains on programmes like Lancer (actually real). Seeing his career as in turmoil, he ponders an offer to star in spaghetti westerns – though he considers this European fare as a death knell to his lofty ambitions. Cliff, the closest thing that Rick has to a friend, essentially acts as his driver and handyman, with little stunt work on offer to him because of an old rumour that has irrevocably damaged his reputation in the industry. In the midst of all this, Rick coincidentally lives next door to none other than rising starlet Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her husband, director Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha). If you know the history, you’ll know going in that none of this ends well…or does it?
As we’ve come to expect from Tarantino’s more recent works, the film’s pacing is quite laidback with the apparent absence of an obvious narrative drive. Like Pulp Fiction, a series of disconnected events slowly intertwine before eventually coming together with a bang. It’s very unhurried in approach, which could be frustrating for audiences expecting plenty of action from the get-go. The director’s depiction of Los Angeles is almost dreamlike and somewhat seductive in effect, with much credit due to Robert Richardson’s cinematography. The 35mm technicolor print gives a golden glow to the city’s architecture which carries over to the main players of the story.
The biggest pull for many is going to be the two leads, DiCaprio and Pitt, together on-screen. Unsurprisingly, the sparks they produce bouncing off one another could light a stick of dynamite. Given that DiCaprio hasn’t starred in a feature film since he won his Oscar for The Revenant in 2015, it was bound to take something truly special for him to return to the silver screen. In Rick Dalton, he’s got it. It’s a reminder that, on top of being a terrific ‘serious actor’, he’s able to produce in the sphere of comedy as well. You can clearly see that he is having tremendous amounts of fun as Dalton. Brad Pitt is also brilliant as Booth, a role with added shades of ambiguity. Pitt is able to capture the sense of mystery surrounding Cliff, making him a captivating presence at all times. There is an unpredictability to Cliff that isn’t conspicuous with Rick, making his character the one you’re more readily invested in. This makes for a nail-bitingly tense sequence when Cliff visits Spahn Ranch, the ramshackle abode of the eerie Manson acolytes.
Of course, Hollywood has its flaws. Unsurprisingly for Tarantino, at just under three hours in runtime it could have used a bit of a trim in the editing room. There are some moments that have the typical whiff of overindulgence. Most involve Robbie as Sharon Tate, which is a real shame considering how Robbie is slowly growing into one of Hollywood’s most talented young actors. Her very brief scenes don’t seem to serve much purpose to the overall plot, feeling like unnecessary detours: a party at the Playboy Mansion and a trip to the cinema to watch one of her own movies left me confused. The lack of active female roles is unfortunate, giving the impression of an androcentric fantasy. In spite of that, there is a minimal yet energetic performance by Margaret Qualley as Manson Family member Pussycat and a scene-stealing cameo from a menacing Lena Dunham to level the playing field slightly.
It isn’t until the film’s climax, when the real-life Tate tragedy begins to take centre stage, that Tarantino earns his badge. Though it may divide audiences over the treatment of genuine events, the mayhem that develops is bloody and bloody ridiculous – and yet utterly hilarious and wholly satisfying. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood might not be Tarantino’s magnum opus, but it should be considered as a blistering return to form for a filmmaker once hailed as the saviour of modern cinema. With supposedly just one film left, QT is still out to prove that he’s undoubtedly one of the best in the business.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), directed by Quentin Tarantino, is distributed in the UK by Columbia Pictures, certificate 18.