Synopsis: In Hollywood circa 1969, washed-up TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double/gofer/best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) try to resurrect their failing careers in the shadow of the rising star of their next door neighbour, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).
1. I am a 31-year-old cisgender heterosexual man who is into ‘the movies’. Unsurprisingly, Quentin Tarantino is very important to me, as a gateway into film history and even the general concept of film as an art form. Beyond what he means to me personally, Tarantino is an important figure as the last of the celebrity auteurs*, the final heir to the throne of guys (and yes, they are all guys unfortunately) like Hitchcock, Spielberg, and Malick, someone whose new release is a bona fide event, whose work reflects a unique perspective that tries to say something about the world. With cinema coalescing more and more into blockbuster fiefdoms based on existing properties, the age of auteur-driven movies is slowly (and sadly) winding down. Directors now are no longer supposed to be visionaries, but functionaries, shepherding these studio-owned intellectual properties to profitability rather than attempting to express any original ideas. As such, it is fitting that Tarantino’s penultimate (or even final) film not only looks back with nostalgic fondness at the end of another Hollywood era, but is obsessed with the encroaching spectre of ageing into irrelevance. Tarantino began his career as an enfant terrible representing the vanguard of a new type of cinema and is ending it as an elder statesman representing an almost classical form of the art. Still, as Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood (hereby shortened to Hollywood) proves, his filmmaking acumen is still among the finest (if not the finest) in cinema, which results in a deeply immersive experience that (shockingly) ranks as one of the most mature and restrained movies he has ever made. It is not his best**, but it is yet another excellent entry into what is, at this point, one of the most impressive filmographies in all of film history.
2. Let us first talk about that uncharacteristic restraint. Large swathes of Hollywood, particularly in its first two acts, do not feel like a Quentin Tarantino movie. This is a combination of many things – the lack of trademark rambling dialogue about pop culture, a (somewhat) increased sense of realism, and (up until one outlier which we will talk about later) a lack of the hyper-tense scenes that Tarantino is so well known for. There is a shaggy-dog, ramshackle element to the whole enterprise, which is what lends the film that sense of realism – as though this might have been based on a true story to some extent. Tarantino’s love for the movies and the movie industry comes through clearly in these first two acts, and the wealth of information makes the setting of Hollywood feel more realised and realistic than any of his other films. Others might say that the drawn-out scenes of Brad Pitt driving or Leo wandering around the set of Lancer make the movie boring, but to me, it makes this world feel lived-in in the best possible way. It is genuinely one of the most immersive film experiences I have had in a while, thanks to how lovingly detailed and realised the world is.
3. Adding to this realism are also the two lead characters. Tarantino regularly traffics in iconography and paints in the broadest strokes regarding characterisation (which is not a bad thing in itself), but the characters of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth might be two of the richest and psychologically deep protagonists he has ever created. As mentioned in paragraph 1, Hollywood is a film that is deeply anxious about aging, and this is reflected in Rick and Cliff, both men out of time desperately trying to cling to relevance in different ways. Rick is a barely concealed bottomless pit of insecurity (and alcoholism), while Cliff is seemingly calm with fading away from the industry. It helps as well that said characters are played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. In a film that is all about movie stars and movie stardom, Tarantino has very deliberately cast the two most titanic (pun!) movie stars he has ever worked with, who have both delivered some of their finest work in his previous movies. Hollywood very much leans into what both stars are known for best – DiCaprio’s nervous, jittery intensity and Pitt’s laconic, amused cool. Of the two, DiCaprio definitely has the meatier role, and plays it to utter perfection. He nails all facets of a complicated character – overbloated self-regard, deep insecurity, even a sense of professional pride. DiCaprio is best when a director can push him to loosen up, and there are several scenes, including a trailer tantrum and a scene where he breaks down crying as he relates the plot of the book to a child actor, where he does some of his very finest work. Pitt, on the other hand, is not stretched nearly as much, fitting very neatly into another of Tarantino’s hyper-cool badasses. Nonetheless, he is never short of excellent, and his usual gift for comedy is played to the hilt – there are few better at drawing laughs out of a restrained reaction.
4. And of course, there is Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate, the nexus of controversy, because what good is a Quentin Tarantino movie without controversy? Let’s get the obvious out of the way – yes, she has fewer lines than the other two male characters. No, this is not a major issue because she is clearly a supporting character. Yes, she still makes a great impact in Hollywood, as Robbie is an extremely gifted actor and acting is more than just dialogue. Tate is less of a character than a symbol of light and happiness, which I suppose is #problematic, but I’m not quite sure if it would be any less #problematic to have made the real Tate a fully realised character with flaws and psychological hangups and the like. And of course, there is that ending. I do not want to go into full spoiler territory, but let’s just say that based on this film, Tarantino is well aware that one of the greatest powers of narrative fiction is in its ability to provide redress for injustices that could never take place in real life. As odd as it is, the ending as close to a (bloody) grace note as Tarantino will ever probably achieve. After the (deliberate) ugliness of The Hateful Eight, it is a welcome ray of Hollywood sunshine.
5. Other random points that I will address as quickly as possible:
a. Tarantino’s gift for casting is exhibited in the minor characters as well. Timothy Olyphant brings his Justified charm to the real life actor James Stacy, Margaret Qualley is the perfect amount of crazysexycool as one of Charles Manson’s acolytes, 9-year-old (!) Julia Butters goes toe to toe with DiCaprio and matches him at every step, and Dakota Goddamn Fanning makes a hell of an impression in a single scene with her creepy-as-fuck portrayal of Manson acolyte Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme. Not so great? Lena Dunham, who is just pathologically incapable of being anything but Lena Dunham in whatever role she plays. Chalk this one up as a rare casting misstep.
b. The Bruce Lee thing … I don’t care. I really don’t. Yes he’s mocked in this film, but Tarantino has paid loving homage to him before in Kill Bill, and the scene where Cliff fights Bruce is ambiguous enough to suggest that the former is remembering it in a better light than it really did happen. Plus, if you don’t think that Bruce’s schtick was at least a little funny, then we cannot be friends.
c. The scene where Cliff wanders around the Spahn ranch, monitored by several murderous Manson family members, is immediately one of the finest things Tarantino has done. It is everything he is known for – witty dialogue, a gradual buildup of unbearable tension, and a blood-soaked punchline to the whole shebang.
d. One point against this film – is it actually possible to get its full impact without the knowledge of what exactly went down at the Tate residence in 1969? I say this because I have friends who were left a little cold by the film until they found out the grisly details of the Manson murders. Should the quality of a film be entirely dependent on extra-diegetic knowledge? Even then, how far should we extend this? Is Saving Private Ryan less impactful if you have no idea about World War II? Does any MCU movie starting from The Avengers make any sense whatsoever? Does this privilege a certain audience demographic while excluding others? It is a question worth asking.
6. If, indeed, this is Tarantino’s last or second-last film, then it cannot really be said that he is going out with a bang. Hollywood is much too low-key (deliberately) for that. It is proof, however, that Tarantino has gracefully aged into the role of old master. The technical skills are still as strong as they have always been, and have been honed to utter perfection.*** Leave aside the controversy and hype (difficult I know) that has dogged his entire career, and appreciate him for what he is. Appreciate the oft-imitated, never bettered dialogue, the unerring sense of shot framing and selection, the way he coaxes brilliant performances out of his actors, the perfect needle-drops, the obsessive attention to every minor detail. This is the last of the old-school auteurs, and in more ways than one, Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood is an exciting, melancholic reminder of the type of film ‘they just don’t make any more.’
*We can quibble about others, but the only one I think that can stake a sufficient claim to be on Tarantino’s level in terms of wider cultural import is Christopher Nolan, and even then, his excruciatingly boring public persona limits how much of a ‘celebrity’ he can be. Everyone else is either too niche (Paul Thomas and Wes Anderson, Edgar Wright, Darren Aronofsky), too content to foreground the work instead of themselves (David Fincher, the Coen Brothers), or have been absorbed into the blockbuster franchise machine (Rian Johnson, Taika Waititi, Ryan Coogler). Potential up-and-comers include Greta Gerwig, Jordan Peele, and Damien Chazelle, but it is highly unlikely they will ever reach such an exalted position in the wider film culture. The days of valorising the artist are long gone.
** In order: Basterds, Pulp, Kill Bill Vol. 1, Jackie Brown, Reservoir Dogs, Hollywood, Django, Hateful Eight, Kill Bill Vol. 2, Death Proof. Not a single dud among the bunch, with the worst of the lot being ‘only’ an entertaining as hell parody that he seemingly farted out with next to no effort. Pretty, puh-retty good.
*** One complaint – ever since the death of his longtime editor Sally Menke, the editing of his films (Django, Hateful Eight, Hollywood) has had a tendency towards flabbiness. It’s less pronounced here (and the shagginess is part of the point) than in the previous films, which is why I consider it a notch above the other two.