There are 3 guarantees in life: death, taxes and Quentin Tarantino’s love and admiration for cinema, film history and the craft of filmmaking. Now with his 9th film, the appreciation of old Hollywood is more discernable than ever. The director literally transformed Hollywood blocks into their previous vintage 1960’s aesthetically pleasing versions of itself to transport the viewer back to a period he adores. And for the production design of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, no expense was spared. Tarantino is singlehandedly keeping the craft alive, even having his frequent cinematographer Robert Richardson shooting on 35 mm film, with the directors own narcissistic vision added to it. From the billboards, to the cars to the musical soundtrack to what populates on the radio and down to the costumes and fashion, no avenue is left untouched by the decade this film lives in.
Summertime in 1969 California and the living is easy but for Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman / personal assistant (due to one too many DWI’s) Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) their careers are on the other side of the fence, where the grass is getting less and less green. Work is hard to come by for Cliff (due to the rumor that he killed his wife and got away with it) while Rick is getting plenty of roles playing a villain, not what the famed Bounty Law star is expecting out of his career at that point.
While next door to Rick, on the famed Cielo Drive, director of Rosemary’s Baby among others, Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) and his wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) move in without a care in the world. Sharon and Roman spend evenings partying at the Playboy mansion while during the daytime Sharon goes out to explore Los Angeles and catches herself at a theater while convincing the staff that it’s her featured in the film.
And if you’re wondering where the foot shots were in The Hateful Eight, Tarantino doubles down in Once Upon a Time with close-ups on Tate’s feet and Manson family girl “Pussycat’s” (Margaret Qualley) feet.
If you’ve been living under a rock and have never once heard the bone chilling story of Charles Manson (Damon Herriman, who also portrayed the cult leader in Mindhunter on Netflix) and the murders of Tate-LaBianca, watching this revisionist historical film as an introduction to these real-life people may be somewhat confusing as in Tarantino’s film, Sharon is never murdered and goes on to live a happy life with her baby and husband.
However, the real story is more tragic and heartbreaking. Leave it to the genius or twisted mind of Tarantino to foreshadow the events leading up and, in the film’s final 20 minutes of near 3 hours of anticipation to flip the script so to speak and create a moment that no one will see coming. A moment full of tension built from the ground up that features the signature Tarantino violence. Only this time it’s perfectly placed when the moment calls for it and is the only scene with that much action. The other 2 and a half hours of Once Upon a Time moves like Jackie Brown.
Considering that Tarantino is now a seasoned director with 9 films under his notched belt, he knows exactly where to place certain familiar elements to keep his story moving so it doesn’t lose any of its viewers attention. Like I mentioned above, Once Upon a Time is a journey, sometimes with the appearance of not having a destination but it’s the characters (some fictional, some real) that will keep things interesting. Mostly due to Tarantino’s biggest strength as a screenwriter – his ability to write captivating dialogue. Most of it sticking to your ribs. Two characters having a conversation has never been more hypnotizing than when Tarantino writes it.
Leading the way in a talented ensemble cast is DiCaprio and Pitt who have oddly never worked together before Hollywood but have the chemistry of two actors who have been in the same films since their careers started. One doesn’t outshine the other while both get the best out of their performances. It can be argued that DiCaprio adds weight to Pitt’s first academy award for best supporting actor (still shocking that both have 1 win a piece) but nonetheless, Pitt finally gets the well-deserved attention. I believe the win should have come a lot sooner, but that’s just me. At least his time in the spotlight finally came. All he had to do was beat the greatest martial artist to ever live, Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) in a friendly yet controversial sparring match.
Even without a true destination for ¾ of his film, the message Tarantino injects into Once Upon a Time is something every person comes across in his or her life. Conquering it is another thing. When faced with the fact that we live in a constantly changing world, in Rick and Cliff’s case the rapidly changing film industry, getting left behind is a fear of Ricks. Just like the main character in the book he reads alongside Trudi Frazier (Julia Butters) (who immediately steals all of DiCaprio’s thunder), the bronco buster is getting older – not able to move the same way so spry after an accident. Rick fears being type cast as the villain, going from show to show to make the star look good while Rick’s characters are made an example of. After being the star of Bounty Law for so long, Rick is longing for a second wind, hoping for another door to open and a new chapter to start. If it wasn’t for Rick and Cliff getting hammered one last time after returning from a lucrative Italian trip, that next chapter would never come.
DiCaprio deserves his flowers too, Rick after fumbling his lines, in that moment realizes he’s mortal, understands that a moment can slip through his fingers if he doesn’t give 110% with each performance. If it wasn’t for the final 20 minutes, DiCaprio made his impression with Rick’s rage, frustration and vulnerability alone in his trailer.
That must be Tarantino’s most under appreciated talent – getting the best performances out of his actors. Fully committed to the director’s vision for 3 hours, everyone from DiCaprio and Pitt down to the Mason family members (and there are a bunch) who are directed to simply stand there and look menacing. While Tex (Austin Butler), Sadie (Mikey Madison), and Katie (Madisen Beaty) are the 3 family members who represent the looming threat but leave it to Rick to unknowingly create a branched reality of the famous events. What was supposed to happen to everyone in the Polanski – Tate residence switches to the Dalton house. More foreshadowing from the talented Tarantino who makes the most seemingly insignificant scene in an arguably overly long film have purpose later.
Like his previous films, Once Upon a Time is a lengthy journey, closing in on 3 hours in which the time drags when not focused on Rick or Cliff. All except 3 films in the director’s filmography run close to that mark but with his 9th film, much of the film should have been left on the cutting room floor. Maybe it’s his narcissism in expecting the viewer to appreciate the period – including minutes of Cliff or some other character driving around in what feels like an endless loop. Or being stuck watching Sharon Tate walk down a city block in admiration of seeing herself on the marquee of the Fox Bruin theater. Centered around the Backdrop of the murders, Tate’s appearance adds nothing to the overall story. Besides Charlie looking for his old friends Tate could have been left out completely and nothing would change – Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) is more of a necessity to Tarantino’s retelling than the person made famous for being murdered.
An ensemble cast of this magnitude is sure to draw anyone to Once Upon a Time but for 2 and a half hours the film stalls in the 1960’s playing on nostalgia for those who experienced the decade. And when the moment finally comes, the payoff is well worth the wait, though excruciating at times. This isn’t like Inglourious or Django when the time just breezes by in a snap, Tarantino takes his time to build the momentum. Not the best of his filmography but certainly not the worst. It’s just another film that lives and breathes in the director’s sandbox. In the past, Tarantino has mentioned that he’s retiring after 10 films – what that 10th film will be, who knows, there’s much to speculate – hopefully he will step out of his comfort zone for his ride off into the sunset.
Written By: Quentin Tarantino
Directed By: Quentin Tarantino
Cinematography: Robert Richardson
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Zoe Bell
Release Date: July 26, 2019
Running Time: 2 Hours 51 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 85%
My Score: 3.5 out of 5