Quentin Tarantino is no stranger to controversy, and there remains very little that he hasn’t tackled – even when he maybe shouldn’t have done. With rape in Pulp Fiction, Nazis in Inglorious Basterds, and perhaps most dubiously slavery in Django Unchained, no taboo stone remains unturned. Next on his list, and fresh in the minds of some in the film industry, was the Manson murders, and the death of the actress Sharon Tate in particular. Understandably, when the news dropped that this would be the subject of his next long-awaited feature Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, many were concerned – myself included. Would he be able to conjure up the respect required to do justice to the tragedy, or would it end up another career misstep in the eyes of many? In my opinion, after seeing the film, this issue is ultimately irrelevant, as the incident is simply one moment of so many others in this cinematic buffet.
Providing a plot summary for this sprawling Hollywood epic, filled with movies within movies and endless self-reflexivity, feels like a near impossibility. At its heart, Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood is about the decay of classical Hollywood as we knew it in the late 1960s, as represented by three leads: Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fading Western TV star, his easygoing yet deadly stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), and the effervescent newbie Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Through their career trajectories, and run-ins with the enigmatic and unsettling Manson family girls, the transitionary nature of American in 1969 is revealed – the recurring motif of Westerns, for instance, is a relic of a more inward-looking time, one where America alone dominated the cinematic landscape. As a man obsessed with film history, Tarantino here expresses nostalgia for a time before his own; these films and these people shaped the landscape for him to eventually come on the scene, and for that, he thanks them.
Because of this thematic focus, Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood is one of the more laid back, meandering films that Tarantino has created. Rather than following kung-fu style fight scenes with more kinetic energy than Dalton’s Cadillac, easy scenes of reading lines in the pool and walking down the scorching LA streets take up most of the lengthy running time. Frequent utilization of long takes and tracking shots allow the brilliant, transformative performances to truly shine, with DiCaprio especially benefitting from this directorial choice – the little girl in the trailer isn’t wrong when she refers to a performance of Dalton’s as some of the best acting she’s ever seen. Margot Robbie in her breezy, glamourous outfits may not get many lines – a fair criticism of the otherwise stellar, hilarious script – but the energy and joy she exudes every second she’s onscreen has more of an impact than words really could. In some ways, this even heightened the thematic choices for me: where Dalton can’t shut up in a world of dialogue-driven movies, Tate is spectacle itself, the future of the film industry.
This certainly isn’t Tarantino’s easiest film to get into – those prone to boredom in slower movies may not enjoy this nearly three-hour slog – but it’s definitely his most sincere. Aside from a rather cruel caricature of the legendary Bruce Lee (I doubt Brad Pitt could have beat him in a fight, honestly), the overall message is one of wistful hope and escapism, as the revisionism present towards the end of the film would suggest. By paying homage to classic Hollywood, Tarantino is singing the praises of optimism and fantasy, and the necessary value of seeing good occasionally in an increasingly desperate world. I could easily write about this film for a thousand more words, but for now, I’ll leave it here – Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood asks some difficult questions about art and violence without offering any concrete conclusions, and as a film to challenge you, I can’t recommend it highly enough.