ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD displays most of the masterful craft Quentin Tarantino has become known for. It is also one of the more egregious examples of Tarantino letting his script get away from him, despite many fantastic individual scenes and acting performances. The uniquely melancholic lament of ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, belied by the fairy-tale title, suggests Tarantino’s misty-eyed romanticism for cinema has perhaps clouded the clarity of his own artistic vision.
The year is 1969 and our Hollywood fairy tale revolves around actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick is under the impression (thanks to a cameo from Al Pacino as agent Marvin Schwarz) that his best days are behind him, and he is reluctant to accept offers to head to Italy to star in Spaghetti Westerns. Heightening his frustration is his impotent proximity to Roman Polanski, one of Hollywood’s rising stars on the strength of ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968), who has just moved in next door with his new wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Naturally, given Tate’s real murder at the hands of the Manson ‘Family’, the spectre of Charles Manson’s cult hangs over the proceedings, with explicit dates counting down to the real life events.
The story has so many strands to it that Tarantino’s rambling script isn’t so much a shaggy dog story as a shaggy dog pack story. Although Booth and Dalton are inextricably linked, aside from pickups and dropoffs in Dalton’s car their stories remain fairly separate throughout, whilst Tate’s also plays out in parallel. Each story has its own compelling elements, with a worthwhile, or even wonderful, sequence identifiable in any of them. However, the lack of a shared anchor beyond superficial reverence for the age leaves each strand adrift in a sea of nostalgia. Tarantino’s climactic gambit foregrounding his lament of the era’s passing – the fairytale pinned at the centre of this collage – offers little beyond his own passion for Hollywood, which has been established pretty firmly in his personal canon already.
“Each story has its own compelling elements, with a worthwhile, or even wonderful, sequence identifiable in any of them. However, the lack of a shared anchor beyond superficial reverence for the age leaves each strand adrift in a sea of nostalgia.”
That passion takes a more joyful form, however, in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. Although this sounds absurd for a film with an amoral, historical murder at its centre, with Tarantino’s trademark explosive violence, there is a difference in how he presents his pop-culture references. Previously, whether it was East Asian action in KILL BILL, blaxploitation in JACKIE BROWN, or Westerns in DJANGO UNCHAINED, Tarantino has remixed elements as an homage to their sources, with mixed success. Rather than basking in the ‘coolness’ of elements, ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD – with its sympathy for Dalton and the tenderness with which Tate’s viewing of herself on screen is presented – shows the deeper reverence Tarantino has for the age. The care with which Tate’s glee at watching THE WRECKING CREW amongst an appreciative audience plays out is a wonderful showcase for both a gentleness Tarantino rarely displays and Robbie’s capacity to generate pathos in an otherwise thin role. On the flip side, the ebbing away of Dalton’s dreams in the initial stretch of the film also effectively communicates the crushing feeling of being an aged relic. This latter angle is also one that has a meta edge to it, as Tarantino himself is reassessed in a post-Weinstein age, where his own conduct and history don’t bear up to scrutiny.
Tarantino has the capacity to be an excellent story-teller, and ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD feels meandering and plotless not simply as a result of length (RESERVOIR DOGS, DEATH PROOF and both volumes of KILL BILL are the only films in his back-catalogue that are appreciably shorter). Disjointed but overlapping stories are not a new aspect to his films, but his most successful lengthy entries have a chaptered structure that is absent here (PULP FICTION, THE HATEFUL EIGHT, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS). Nor is this ambling quality a result of poor editing of the strands: each one flows beautifully within itself, with the slow pace accentuating the obliviousness of the characters to the approaching Manson storm. However, the lack of narrative overlap until the finale is akin to tearing pages out of three separate books and gluing them to a single spine.
The result is several dead ends and extraneous scenes. The presence of Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) – putting aside the debate on the sensitivity, or lack thereof, in his portrayal – is largely pointless beyond foreshadowing Cliff’s role in the finale’s explosive ultraviolence. Additionally, the manner in which a character revelation during this segment, regarding the fate of Cliff’s wife, is brushed aside is a more uncomfortable loose end compared to the rest of the film’s mere baggy self-indulgence.
The poignancy of the characters’ fates is also intertwined closely with the crimes of the Manson cult, and without knowledge of them some of the impact is lessened. This is a more personal fairytale for Tarantino than the “Once upon a time…in Nazi-occupied France” chapter that opens INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, but the requirement of historical context to fully tune in to Tarantino’s lucid dream gives way to the same levels of self-indulgence that blighted the storytelling of KILL BILL: VOL. 1.
“However, the strengths of the talents at work are still present in spurts. The entire [Spahn Ranch] sequence is reminiscent of the tension in the opening scene of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, but translated to the dusty and sunlit open spaces of California.”
However, the strengths of the talents at work are still present in spurts. Pitt’s laconic charisma is put to excellent use and blends beautifully with Tarantino’s filmmaking in a scene at the Spahn Ranch home of the Mansons: Pitt’s calm is masterfully juxtaposed against the rising tension of the situation. The entire sequence is reminiscent of the tension in the opening scene of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, but translated to the dusty and sunlit open spaces of California.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD is, in a way, the most quintessentially Tarantino film since KILL BILL: VOL. 1, and to hope for more restraint at this stage of his career is probably futile. To longer-term detractors it will play as an interminable bore. However, if you are willing to wade through – or even embrace – reams of referential material in the script and the resulting shambling narrative, then he might just transport you to the world he creates here.