Midway through the movie, Leonardo diCaprio’s character, Rick Dalton, would tell his co-star the synopsis of a pulp Western novel he reads. As he goes on, he would unconsciously self-refer the story to his career, before he finally breaks down in tears. That kind of parable is something that will happen quite often in Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film (counting Kill Bill as one film), Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, a self-referential love letter from the industry’s wunderkind to the late 60s cinema. While featuring almost all director’s trademark, the film observes the director’s substantial growth to a more mature creative force—that tends more to discourse and contemplation.
There are a lot of things going on in this star-studded joint, but none of them resemble a plot for at least 2 hours. Tarantino introduces us to Dalton, a faded actor known for a long-running television series called Bounty Law before getting typecast as the archetypal villain. Alongside him, there is a badass stuntman turned Dalton’s runner and only friend, Cliff Booth (placid, restraint Brad Pitt) with shady past—including a feud with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) and a mysterious case with his wife. In the same period, in the same vicinity, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) strolling and partying around either with her husband, Rosemary’s Baby‘s director, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) or with Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch). We’ll see Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) and his acolytes (from Margaret Qualley, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Lena Dunham, to Maya Hawke) lurking around the neighborhood. The only thing that will prompt all those made-up characters and the real-life figures to cross paths with each other is the geo-location a.k.a. the Hollywood and nothing else. It’s a revision picture, after all—a pulpy one, if not a thought-provoking one.
” The only thing that will prompt all those made-up characters and the real-life figures to cross paths with each other is the geo-location a.k.a. the Hollywood and nothing else.”
Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood features all the director’s telltale signatures—from the melodious exchange of dialogues written with certain kinds of beat and precision, myriads of pop-culture references, pitch-black comedy, stylish ultra-violent sequences (better save that up, first) and a weird Mexican stand-off. While the dialogue-heavy scenes keep the narrative moves forward, the dialogues barely spark hard-pressed conflicts (as in The Hateful Eight, for example); instead, they ignite discourse about the death of certain Hollywood era to give birth to another. Such discourse gives DiCaprio’s Dalton necessary depth, complemented with his occasional breakdown. On one occasion, Dalton speaks to Al Pacino’s Marvin Schwarz who suggests Dalton starring in spaghetti western movies (There are even some made-up posters of spaghetti westerns, such as Operazione Dyn-O-Myte directed by Antonio Margheriti. We don’t know if that’s the real Antonio Margheriti or the one name-dropped by Sgt. Donny Donowitz in Inglorious Basterds). From those dialogues, we can observe the old Hollywood of Tarantino’s dreams.
Tarantino embraces the period setting dearly and, at the same time, creatively. The sun-soaked Hollywood is as intriguing as it is distinct. Sub-political subtexts play important roles in understanding characters’ motives and, in this case, frustration. DiCaprio delivers one of his most compelling performances since The Wolf of Wall Street which makes his respective collaborations with Tarantino an A-streak. Pitt, on the other hand, is an antithesis of his Inglorious Basterds’ character. Booth is a nuanced character with gravitas. Most of the time, this character is sidelined for the favor of Dalton’s; but, that’s probably for the best, making him discussion-prone character.
The real-life figures make bedazzling entrances to the story. While Hollywood stars like Bruce Lee and Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) look partially cartoonish and tabloid-laden, their characters have unforgettable on-screen manifestation. On a different palette, Tarantino portrays Sharon Tate with much admiration. With little speaking role (as if deliberately), the director presents one of the most iconic cinema scenes, in which barefooted Tate will get astonished seeing her own movie. From there to the designated climax, Tarantino goes on regretting how Tate would have been an icon nowadays if not for the tragedy.
The whole Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood leading up to the final 30 minutes, which shows the movie takes the liberty to wreak havoc using the twist of Manson Family massacre on Cielo Drive. Tarantino caught audiences off-handed with how subtle he leads the story to this point; he even manages to plant in some important plot devices to play roles in the showdown. The height of this climactic is the size of Inglorious Basterds‘ Nazi-killing arson; and, it will stay long after the movie ends not only as an iconic Tarantino-esque climax but more.
Watching Tarantino overindulging in his fascination for the zeitgeist of a Hollywood era is a real treat, especially when Leonardo di Caprio and Brad Pitt are on board with a similar spirit. If any of the director’s films before this showing his respectful homage to the particular world cinema’s sub-genre (from the pulpy hard-boiled gangster, blaxploitation, spaghetti western, wuxia and propaganda movies) that fascinated him, his ninth film shows how the 60s Hollywood era influences his body of works.