Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood: Film Review

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Quentin Tarantino’s long awaited 9th film released recently in the form of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. The film is set in the late 60s in front of a contextual backdrop of the infamous Charles Manson murders, where four people, including actress Sharon Tate, were brutally killed. The film follows Tate, played by Margot Robbie, but focuses on fictional characters in this historical situation; Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is a former starlet of the LA television scene whose career starts to falter as he attempts to make the transition into film. He and his dutiful stunt-double-turned-sidekick-and-best-friend Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt, look to turn their fortunes around as Hollywood moves full steam ahead. Aside from the incredible cast mentioned above, the film stars Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, and Timothy Olyphant among others. Tarantino was quoted as calling this film “the casting coup of the century” for having acquired a cast of such legendary acting talent. This is Tarantino’s penultimate film, before his supposed retirement.

The anticipation for this film was high to say the absolute least. Any Tarantino movie deserves attention, we don’t get too many of them too often, but with a cast like the one I just mentioned? I was running to opening night. All in all, I’d say I was maybe slightly underwhelmed. It should be understood that a massive contributing factor for that was undoubtedly the expectations I had for it. With a cast like that and Tarantino at the helm, I had a hard time not expecting something other than a masterpiece. It’s an excellent film, a fantastic film even, but I wouldn’t put it on the level of, say, Django Unchained or Inglorious Basterds. The main thing keeping it from that is its pacing. Tarantino’s not a stranger to making films close to 3 hours in length; the reason he’s never really seen criticism for that is because he does a fabulous job pacing it out. I’m used to him juggling plot lines and jumping from point to point in a narrative; it’s always been okay because the way he does it has always been engaging and maintained my undivided attention. There has to be a focus, an energy to how one does it, otherwise it risks looking aimless, and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood does, at times, feel aimless, particularly in the first hour or so. It drags pretty hard at times during that first hour.

That’s what kept the film from the heights I was hoping for, aside from that, however, it was more or less all I expected of it. All the Tarantino schticks were in full display. Feet, lots of them, extremely well placed music, expositional cut scenes, and that strangely eccentric tone that could only be his. The violence is actually somewhat tame, until the last 20 minutes of the film at least. And I should mention those 20 minutes, quite possibly the best 20 minutes of film this year. I’m very cautious of spoilers, I don’t want to give anything away. This is a film based on the true story that is the Charles Manson murders of Hollywood in the late 60s, you wouldn’t think there could be much to spoil in a film like that. It wouldn’t be the first time, however, that Tarantino chose to put his own spin on history. Suffice it to say that he really lets the dogs out in those last 20 minutes or so, and they might genuinely be my favorite 20 minutes of film for as long as I can remember.

I have not yet mentioned the esteemed Leo and Brad duo. They were phenomenal, as per standard. Helped, of course, by some absolutely first drawer writing, Leo and Brad carry this film to infinity and beyond from an acting standpoint. They have more individually impressive scenes than I anticipated and fewer scenes together per se; doing nothing to hinder their performances. Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth are, of course, fictional characters in a situation both very real and very plausible. Leo’s depiction of an actor who can’t pull it together is a little too convincing, and Brad seemed only too happy to stand tall in the role of a deeply self-assured stunt double with a past. There was controversy prior to the film’s release about the material involvement of Sharon Tate in the film. There was a certain insinuation about the use of Robbie as eye-candy and the lack of fleshing out of her character, which an angry Tarantino responded to by referring to Tate as “the heartbeat of the story”. That was overcompensation as far as I’m concerned; Sharon Tate serves a theoretical purpose in the film as well as the importance of her context to the ending, but nothing substantially more than that. Part of the film’s thesis is this portrait of different kinds of lives that are lead in Hollywood and the contrast in attitudes and circumstances. Sharon Tate completes Tarantino’s portrait, her presence is what makes the final statement relevant, but, in terms of her character, there was very little fleshing out to be had. Robbie is strong in the moments that she has, but that’s a limited material exposure. Again, I don’t see this as a particularly villainous thing, in the end it is her presence that delivers Tarantino’s ultimately hopeful spin on history. Al Pacino and Kurt Russell are equal part window dressing, which is fair enough I suppose. The real weight is carried by Leo and Brad, who both deliver performances worthy of them.

I wouldn’t call this a masterpiece. To be frank, I’m not the biggest Tarantino fan in the world. I like him a lot, he has a very distinctive style and he’s most definitely cemented himself as one of the great directors of all time, but I’m not gaga over his work (with the definite exception of Inglorious Basterds, one of the best films I’ve ever seen without a doubt). I definitely appreciate the drawn out, kind of reflective narrative style he has, one which has pervaded his work over the years and certainly pervades this one. I did find it a little unfocused at times, which annoyed me a lot more right after watching the film than it does now. The thing that sets this film apart, in my view, is the stance he seems to take at the end. I really don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll choose my words carefully. The end of the film, despite its content, conveys this profound positivity that, in the moment, you can’t decide if it feels just right or wildly out of place. You’re walking out of the theatre smiling ear to ear, you can’t possibly not after the last 20 minutes, so despite what maybe should be a sense of confusion, you feel a deep sense of satisfaction. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is an excellent film, worthy of all those involved, and worthy of your time.

– Aman Datta

Aman’s Score – 84/100                                                               Aryamaan’s Score –