It is quite a challenging task to touch on every element that makes a Quentin Tarantino film work. It would not even be a stretch to say that one could write an entire dissertation essay on over a dozen individual scenes throughout his eclectic filmography. As one of the most prolific writers and directors of the last quarter-century, Tarantino always leaves his signature mark on his films, even across remarkably diverse genres and narrative styles. Tarantino’s screenplays first and foremost start with the dialogue between the relatable, well-developed characters. The story itself even takes a backseat to the long, uninterrupted conversations from the figures in the narrative. Two people will drive in a car, sit in a diner, or drink at a bar for 15 minutes straight, talking about something as trivial as hamburgers and their love lives, or deeply philosophical matters like divine intervention, cultural stereotypes, and societal expectations. Tarantino wants to show that the people in these movies could just as easily be our next-door neighbors, regardless of the fact that they are mobsters, hitmen, ninja assassins, or famous actors. His latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is arguably one of his most personal, profound, and sincere projects yet. Taking all of these trademarks and running with them full-steam ahead, Tarantino composes a wistful salutation to the film era of his childhood.
The story starts in Los Angeles, California, 1969, with Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Rick Dalton, an aging television and movie star. Dalton is horribly insecure, vulnerable, and emotionally unstable. He has a dreadful drinking problem, smokes way too many cigarettes, and constantly struggles with an incessant stuttering problem. Still, to most people, Dalton looks like the famous TV cowboy who has the whole world in his hands. How could an individual with such fame and fortune be plagued with the same problems as the rest of us? Well, the answer is quite simple. Rick Dalton is a human being. He has flaws, makes mistakes, is weighed down by regrets, and compares himself to other people. It makes no difference that he is an idolized actor, who is watched weekly by virtually every household in America. The pain, strife, and struggles of the human experience do not discriminate. That is precisely the core theme conveyed by the character of Rick Dalton. DiCaprio’s performance is easily one of the best of his career, capturing the rich depth, intensity, and extensiveness of this role with a masterful dexterity that will likely be recognized later this year during awards season. In his first performance in four years, after his Oscar-winning effort in 2015’s The Revenant, DiCaprio is back with a bang, with no signs of slowing down. The progression of his character is heartbreaking at times, but as the narrative unfolds, it is also incredibly moving, beautiful, and even uplifting (or, at least relative to Tarantino’s unmistakable, unrestrained, lawless style of filmmaking).
One of the aspects of this story that pushes the film into unusually heartfelt territory by Tarantino’s standards is Rick Dalton’s relationship with his stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Even at the ripe age of 55 years old, Pitt is at the top of his game, getting better with each year like fine wine. His charisma, charm, comedic timing, and sharp delivery of classic Tarantino one-liners are all strikingly entertaining to witness. With this calm, cool, and collected personality, the character of Booth perfectly balances out the unsteadiness of Dalton. Booth is there to support, encourage, and guide Dalton through his personal crises. Their chemistry is hypnotic, and their engrossing synergy leads to the development of one of Tarantino’s most humorous films to date. Even with the depressed and down-trodden spirit of Dalton, the stark contrast of Booth’s character is hilarious to watch unfold. There is certainly no shortage of quotable quips and magnificent monologues from the duo, which will undoubtedly be recorded in “The Archives of Tarantino” for all of posterity. What results is basically a buddy dramedy, with two old friends leaning on one another as they venture through the madness of both life and Hollywood.
Still, there is more to the narrative than the relationship between Dalton and Booth. Coincidentally, famous actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her (now infamous) filmmaker husband, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), happen to live next door to Rick Dalton. In our view from the outside world, audience members will likely associate Tate with the horrific violent act against her by Charles Manson’s cult, which tragically ended her life and that of her unborn child’s. However, in this film, Tarantino makes it a point to give a glimpse into Tate’s everyday personal life. The sinister shadow of the Manson Family still looms over the story, but Tate’s humanity is the primary focus of her character. Whether she is folding laundry, going to a local book shop, or even checking out a movie (starring herself) at the legendary Bruin Theatre, she is portrayed as an independent human being, not defined by the cruel act against her. While Robbie does not have a great deal of dialogue or even screen time, the grace and elegance she brings to this role is phenomenal. She carries a magnetic aura with her in every scene, even when she is not speaking a word. Robbie continues to show that she is one of the best and brightest up-and-coming actresses in the industry today.
The rest of the outstanding and wide-ranging supporting ensemble cast, including Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Timothy Olyphant, Luke Perry, Dakota Fanning, Austin Butler, and Margaret Qualley, all churn out effective efforts and are adequately utilized within the narrative, despite also being short on screen time. However, the supporting cast member who truly steals the show is the young 10-year-old actress Julia Butters. Butters portrays a young actress working alongside DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton in a television show. She is barely in the film for 10 minutes, but the scenes she shares with DiCaprio will be talked about for a long time, undoubtedly launching her into a prosperous acting career. Her screen presence even overshadows DiCaprio himself, which is one of the highest forms of praise to be given to any performance. She has a tight grip on her role that is proportionally on par with any of the other big names in the film. Just as we have seen young actresses such as Hailee Steinfeld and Millie Bobby Brown propel themselves into Hollywood’s brightest spotlights in recent years, keep your eye on Julia Butters to do the same.
Turning attention to the technical and visual style of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it is truly a marvelous achievement. The nostalgic re-creation of Hollywood in 1969 is nearly seamless. From the bustling Los Angeles highways, to the crowded city streets, to the film and television sets frequented by Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth, the environment feels authentic, organic, and passionately crafted. Production designer Barbara Ling, set decorator Nancy Haigh, costume designer Arianna Phillips, and the dozens of hair-and-makeup artists display their striking expertise and firm grasps on their positions. Director of Photography Robert Richardson, veteran collaborator with Quentin Tarantino, is back once again, superbly supervising the gorgeous framing and shot-selection, intricate system of dollies, and visual storytelling in the film. With sweeping wide and overhead shots, intimate close-ups, panning long takes, and quick angle shifts, Richardson and Tarantino were obviously on the same page in producing the overall look and feel of the photography. Editor Fred Raskin, another experienced colleague of Tarantino’s, does a really nice job putting together all of the Tarantino quirks and unconventional twists in the editing style, with sudden flashbacks and time jumps, tonal shifts, and omnipotent narration provided by Kurt Russell. The 2 hours and 40 minutes of footage are formulated into a mostly cohesive, yet methodically-paced narrative. While the excess B-roll footage of cars driving down Hollywood Boulevard and through Los Angeles neighborhoods definitely gets repetitive, appearing more as an indulgent showcase of the practical effects rather than a true progression of the narrative, the inclusion and retainment of these scenes was probably up to Tarantino more than his editor. With so much influence and control over his projects, it is difficult to place the blame on this trivial detractive factor on anybody other than Tarantino himself. Still, if the most noteworthy issue in a film is its overabundance of stunning replicated settings of Hollywood highways, it is easy enough to look past this negative. Even with the cyclical nature of these scenes, the sublime musical soundtrack accompanying these segments will still be appreciated by many. The classic hits from the likes of Simon and Garfunkel, The Rolling Stones, and Bob Seger, and the deep-cuts from groups like Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Buchanan Brothers, and Roy Head and the Traits, are woven perfectly into the film by illustrious music supervisor Mary Ramos. Indeed, it is often during these driving scenes that some of the most catchy and rhythmic tunes are played. Thus, even if a few scenes might stray a bit too closely into the domain of dullness, they are still salvaged by a solid musical overlay and a pleasing aesthetic.
It would also be careless not to mention the work of the stunt team and practical effects artists. Tarantino is very old-fashioned when it comes to CGI versus physical special effects, turning to the latter whenever possible. There is more of the same in this feature. The extreme violence and brutality found in every Tarantino flick certainly does not work for everybody, and it often stirs up controversy in some form or another. Despite the slow-burning nature of the film’s first two hours or so, the climactic final half hour of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood erupts with an ultra-violent flurry of blood and gore. The technical creations in these scenes are astoundingly realistic and unabashedly gratuitous. No holds are barred. Some people may be offended by the handling of this bloodshed, but those remotely familiar with Tarantino’s work will know exactly what to expect. If that is something you can accept, then get ready for a wild display of over-the-top action.
Anything Tarantino produces as a filmmaker is an acquired taste, even for the most mature of audiences. And, for this particular film, he delivers on a stellar, personal enterprise of passion, drafting a loving tribute to the Hollywood that influenced him as a filmmaker. Perhaps he ventures a bit too far into the realm of showmanship and presumptuousness at times, but in review of the overall outcome, these pitfalls have little impact on the journey in general. As massive blockbusters and franchises crowd the marketplace of cinema today, recognizing the creative originality of enthusiastic artists is as important as ever. Regardless of the way one may feel about certain approaches made by Tarantino in his movies, his undeniable devotion, expressiveness, and zeal for art is hard to debate.
In theaters July 26th, 2019.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.
EoM is running an edited version of this review with permission from author Thomas Manning. Read the original draft on his website The Run-Down on Movies.