Spoilers ahead, including of the ending!
Audience expectations are director Quentin Tarantino’s plaything. He knows exactly what filmgoers are braced for in terms of his signature blood-letting, but Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood finds him at his most restrained.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays struggling actor Rick Dalton, and Brad Pitt is his stunt-double and friend, Cliff Booth. The setting is 1960s L.A., and much of the film is spent revelling in the style and atmosphere that has been beautifully recreated.
Tarantino was about 6-years-old when the film is set, and has revealed that he sometimes shot from low angles to show how he saw the city at that age. Most people might have their old videos transferred to DVD to relive their childhoods, but Tarantino has spent millions rebuilding his for real, and populating it with characters to live out his fantasies.
Most of the film is spent charting Dalton’s waning career as a TV actor. He finds himself increasingly relegated to play the villain rather than the hero, and has to travel to Italy to appear in Spaghetti Westerns (which he hates, but are one of Tarantino’s most beloved genres). There is a lot of fun to be had in watching megastar DiCaprio give a self-aware performance as an insecure actor, with Pitt as his gofer.
The true story of the Manson Family murders is the sinister backdrop for their adventures, constantly threatening to break the spell of nostalgia with explosive violence. Margot Robbie plays the actress Sharon Tate, who was killed by members of the Family in 1969, two weeks before she was due to give birth. The fictional Dalton lives in the house next door to Tate and her husband, director Roman Polanski.
Al Pacino co-stars as a movie producer, but is sorely underused, and the great Tim Roth had his scenes cut entirely. This smacks of a director who’s self-confidence has gotten out of control. His longtime editor Sally Menke died in 2010, and his work since has missed her collaboration keeping him in check.
The writer/director has said he makes his films for himself, but that everyone is invited. For movie buffs, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood should be a blast. Tarantino famously lets music inspire his writing, and here delivers another rich soundtrack, but in this case the songs are sometimes more entertaining than the scenes they accompany. It’s an exercise in (albeit impressive) style over substance, and for those who don’t share the director’s tastes, the film is much too long.
Long frustrated by criticism of the explicit content of his films, Tarantino remains vehement that there is a big difference between real-life violence and ‘movie violence’. In this film he has crafted an ending that is something of a muddled comment on that debate.
(Here come the big spoilers…)
When the gruesome climax finally arrives, and members of the Manson Family approach the Polanski residence, the story swerves from history into fantasy – as has been Tarantino’s penchant in recent years. Berated by Dalton for bringing their noisy car onto his private road in the middle of the night, the Manson hippies recognise him from TV, and decide instead to murder those who ‘taught them to kill’ – their TV heroes next door to Tate.
But stuntman Cliff Booth is in their way. Booth’s character is given a deliberately unsettling backstory – we learn that he may have killed his wife and got away with it. In heroically protecting Tate and her unborn child by brutally killing her would-be attackers, he is given a redemptive character arc in which the murder of his fictional wife is counterbalanced by his saving a real-life wife. Perhaps Tarantino is expressing his horror at the real-life killings by ‘undoing’ them, but dismissing his detractors by still flying the flag for his cherished ‘movie violence’.
The subject matter perhaps sheds light on the inspiration for Tarantino’s infamous Kill Bill films. Like Tate, the avenger in those was a pregnant blonde bride, similarly attacked and left for dead. This latest fantasy of retribution may come from a real sense of injustice, but Tarantino makes no attempt to understand or sympathise with the brainwashed youths. He invites you to delight in the vicious way they are slain. The lead culprit, as he did in real life, describes their intent as ‘the devil’s business’. Their actions may have been evil, but vengeance belongs to God (Deuteronomy 32:35 and Romans 12:19), not to angry filmmakers – however brilliant.
★★★★☆ Spectacular and sprawling – Tarantino at his most self-indulgent but least violent.