REVIEW: Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie, Dakota Fanning, Luke Perry, Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Mike Moh and more in his love letter to the “Golden Age” of Hollywood. It has been 25 years since Pulp Fiction revolutionized cinema and cemented Tarantino as someone extraordinary and unique in his storytelling. Since then he’s released Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2, Inglorious Bastards, Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight. All of which highlight the best Tarantino has to offer (i.e., Kill Bill, Inglorious Bastards, and Django Unchained) and some of his slight missteps (The Hateful Eight).
I want to preface this review with the fact that Pulp Fiction changed the way I watch film and has influenced my taste on the entire medium. Since then, I have been an avid Tarantino watcher, waiting gleefully to see what he creates next. Though, some of that excitement and mindset that he could do no wrong dissipated when The Hateful Eight released in theaters. I saw it on the biggest screen I could (AMC Lowes Lincoln Center in NYC) and left the theater thinking he had lost his writing touch. The structure of that film was the same as his others, but something felt off in the dialogue. And sequences felt more drawn out except now they were missing the witty dialogue we’re used to having.
Naturally, this had me questioning myself, would he rebound? And after watching Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood, the answer is a resounding: it’s complicated. I will be getting into spoilers about the film so consider this your official spoiler warning.
Before we get into the bad stuff, let’s talk about all the goodness Tarantino displays on the screen.
First and foremost, DiCaprio and Pitt are absolutely dynamite together on-screen. The chemistry and dynamic between the two as Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth elevate the film and make the more draw out sequences entertaining. The rest of the cast is exceptional, especially Margot Robbie and Mike Moh who portray Sharon Tate and Bruce Lee. Even if what happens with their characters leaves something to be desired (more on that later).
Tarantino knew where he wanted to take his two lead characters, Dalton and Booth. While the story is framed around the Manson family and Sharon Tate, Dalton and Booth provide the audience with an empathic look into Hollywoods past and the industry as a whole.
Similarly, the cinematography on display is some of the best Tarantino has to offer in terms of the nostalgic aesthetic that’s created to emulate 1969. Robert Richardson deserves a tremendous amount of credit for crafting these beautiful shots on 35mm film. I wouldn’t expect anything less from him or Tarantino, but every film is as stunning as the last and the care in getting those shots shows.
With all of that said, I have several gripes with Tarantino’s storytelling choices mainly with the handling of Sharon Tate, the Manson Family, and surprisingly Bruce Lee.
There’s no other way to say this Margot Robbie was wasted in this film. She’s given little to do with virtually no lines and its a damn shame because when Robbie is given a chance to showcase her acting chops, she’s phenomenal.
But, what left me feeling uneasy was the third act and Tarantino’s revisionist take. Rewriting history is something Tarantino has done before and better in Inglorious Bastards and Django Unchained.
However, in this film, the entire third act, which takes place during the night of the Manson murders, rests on the tension of knowing the history. Instead of raiding Sharon Tate’s home to kill her, the Manson family goes to Dalton’s. And unlike in real life, the Manson’s get brutally murdered by Dalton and Booth. Thus, Sharon Tate lives to entertain audiences until she’s old and grey, and they all live happily ever after.
Herein lies the problem: what’s the point?
Even though the Manson’s being murdered was funny, it was also viciously brutal. And with no underlying commentary on that night or the Manson’s themselves; it feels wholly unnecessary.
Sharon Tate’s story and her personhood deserved more respect than Tarantino leaning into his violent indulgences and playing god with the lives of six people.
On the issue of Bruce Lee, and believe me, I didn’t anticipate this to be an issue. There’s a fight scene between him and Booth that essentially makes a mockery of him. It was incredibly distasteful, even for Tarantino.
As a result, Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood feels like a mixed bag of Tarantino at his witty best and his self-indulgent worst.