Tripwire’s senior editor Andrew Colman reviews Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, which has been out in UK cinemas for two weeks now…
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margarey Qualley, Timothy Olyphant
Much has been said about this movie being a return to form for Tinseltown’s favourite maverick, but Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood gets by purely as an alluringly regressive exercise. It’s wonderful to behold, yet there’s something missing, which for the duration of the tale is hard to pinpoint. For a director who was habitually referred to as cutting edge throughout his pomp, this film is a weird combination of painstakingly crafted synthesis and theme – avoidance. The slim subtext is there if you look for it, but QT (the polar opposite of Oliver Stone) is not about to signpost anything, let alone provide the dramatic focus that is usually important for telling stories. Which is what this fable is, after all.
It’s 1969, and although the entire cast aren’t aware of it (how could they be?) it’s possibly the most pivotal of all years in pop cultural history – even more seismic than 1968’s tumultuous effort. Washed up 1950s western star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) fears his career in Hollyweird is all but over. Accompanied by his right hand man and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) pretty much everywhere he goes, Dalton is suffering from various addictions, while Booth is dogged by the rumour that he may have murdered his wife. Dalton ambles his way into various pilot episodes thanks to his agent Marvin Shwarz (Al Pacino), before heading to Europe for a couple of spaghetti westerns with Booth. Meanwhile, Hollywood royalty Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), her husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and ex-boyfriend Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) have moved in next door to Dalton, living the most Technicolor of gauze-filtered lives, all to a happening, carefully-selected soundtrack. At this time, the freewheeling Booth has started noticing somewhat sinister young girls hanging out on Hollywood Boulevard, and eventually agrees to take one of them to Manson family residence Spahn Ranch.
The reviews have generally been favourable for this latest outing, hailing it as a layered work that both celebrates and occasionally derides Hollywood. Others have claimed correctly that it is too long, self-indulgent and doesn’t have that much to say, beyond providing a wondrously delineated snapshot of the era. It is unquestionably a frustrating effort, in as much as QT doesn’t seem to need to push boundaries anymore, although his tics and tropes are still all present and correct. There are the pointless box-ticking dead-end cameos, such as Pacino’s agent, who potentially could’ve been an object of satire but ends up barely being a plot device. And then there’s Damian Lewis’s Steve McQueen, who utters the film’s few acerbically contextualized lines and then promptly disappears, never to be seen again. Presumably he wandered in from another movie.
The alleged subtext, such as it is, involves the last gasp of innocence in Hollywood being snuffed out by the tide of countercultural detritus surreptitiously snooping at the gates, motored by class and generational envy, cult of personality and inevitable psychosis. And it’s there to an extent, especially when the devil may care Booth heads for the grimy American gothic that is Spahn Ranch, encrusted as it is with feral, underage itinerants. Pitt’s Booth seems to be more of the film’s focus than the perennially warped Dalton, coming face to face with hell, yet completely at ease with his predicament. Indeed, Brad Pitt’s performance is so enormously likeable that you can almost forgive all his silly encounters, such as with a decidedly egomaniacal Bruce Lee. DiCaprio is excellent too – indeed I would say that Dalton is one of his best ever performances. The two leads are so good in their roles, that you often forget that this movie is a superannuated tribute, replete with acres of references and an atomic-level attention to detail. Their easy, boyish charm (hard to believe that Pitt is 55) effortlessly elevate the film and draw you into the narrative.
And then there’s Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate. There was a moderate amount of online opprobrium regarding QT’s inability to flesh out female roles, with Robbie being an apparent case in point. But her presence in the film is existential. She is the essence of 1969, as she casually saunters her way around L.A. – even her somewhat humdrum visit to the local cinema to catch herself in a caper flick captures something almost magical. She doesn’t need lines, such is her luminescence, and her performance evokes that aforementioned innocence. Although exempt from advancing hippiedom, she is a star child.
Which brings us to her, and indeed the film’s ending. Tate’s presence in the film may have been highly problematic, but QT succeeded in bypassing any furore by simply doing what he has often done – he cheats. Tate’s real life fate was of course infinitely appalling, tragic, brutally cold and totally at odds with the metre of this film, so our director’s little sidestep is to have the Manson morons invade Dalton’s abode instead. After a considerable amount of foreshadowing (about two and a half hours of it) the creeping suspense-ometer has been cranked up to ten – we know exactly what happens, and the film does mention that Charlie and his chimps knew of the previous residents of the Polanski house and had been there before. We barely glimpse Charlie – he’s the grinning eminence grise lurking in the shadows. So the Manson gang end up next door to where they were meant to be, wherein the film explodes in an orgy of graphic, zombie-movie ultraviolence, in which Chas’s children get sliced, garrotted, incinerated and mutilated, in the usual QT offhand way. The American Dream ends here, except it doesn’t. Booth (who did most of the dispatching) gets carted away in an ambulance, oblivious to the carnage he reaped due to being in the middle of an acid trip. And five minutes later, Dalton, having just wielded a flamethrower with intent, is hobnobbing with Sebring and Tate, both blissfully unaware that their fictional selves have avoided a very grim fate indeed.
The Tate / LaBianca murders were the beginning of the end for the 1960s, both literally and figuratively. According to received commentary, it was Altamont that was the final nail in the coffin, the youth movement’s utopian hopes and dreams crash landing due to ineptitude, vicious malefactors, lack of empathy and bad acid. Of course history is never that simple or schematic. The 1960s continued long into the 1970s, especially on the west coast – it gradually atomized, got co-opted or corporatized, but it didn’t simply vanish on December 31st 1969. Yes, Hollywood’s output radically matured at least partly due to the changes of the last year or two of that key decade, with the western genre experiencing the biggest shift – western movies from The Wild Bunch onwards would no longer exalt in the mythology of the west, but focus exclusively on its decline or creeping extinction.
But in QT-land, of course, none of that matters – the title, unsubtly hinting that what we’ve seen is indeed a fairy tale, being the giveaway. There are plenty of qualms about QT’s need to play fast and loose with events, not to mention the languid, drawn out pace of the project itself. On the one hand, for me it’s second only to Altman’s masterpiece The Long Goodbye in its impression of Los Angeles, while on the other there are ghosts of better movies within its fabric. Despite all the kudos and plaudits, there is too much flab, and not enough matter. Yet perhaps it’s a case of expecting more but not knowing what, exactly. Like I said – the work is worthwhile, beautifully rendered, but frustrating.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is out now in UK and US cinemas now
Here’s the film’s trailer too