Quentin Tarantino is a familiar name to most moviegoers and one whose film style can divide film fans. Nevertheless, he has unarguably left his mark on cinema with his output, and he is amongst the best of them when it comes to writing dialogue. There are very few people who wouldn’t be able to recognize at least one of Tarantino’s iconic lines from his movies.
And though his films tend to be non-linear, with branching stories running in parallel, featuring numerous flashbacks, they also tend to resolve themselves quite neatly, bringing the viewer along the journey until they achieve the full realisation of Tarantino’s true intent.
However, with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I think the results aren’t quite as neatly explained to the audience by the end of the film as the director’s previous fare.
Set in the Hollywood of the ’60s, the period piece is oozing with references and homages to the films of that era. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton, a fictional, almost washed-up Western TV Star, and Brad Pitt as his stunt-man/loyal friend, the film focuses on 3 days in the life of these men as they deal with being past their prime and their past life choices. The focus is also on real-life actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and the 3 days in question have a huge historical significance on events that took place in her life back in 1969.
And basing the story around those events might be the biggest factor in making this film not as accessible to viewers as Tarantino might have hoped. The movie assumes a lot of background knowledge on what happened to Sharon Tate, the Manson Family and even of cinema back in the ’60s, and I think that is to its detriment.
You get a sense of the love and care that Tarantino has put into the film, and all the references he makes to that era of Hollywood. Leo’s Rick Dalton is deftly inserted into movie and TV footage from the time, and I am sure that people who understood those references would have got a kick out of them, but as I personally have limited knowledge of that period in Hollywood, those references kind of went over my head.
So too, did all the references to the Manson family, Sharon Tate and some famous locales that are part of their story. Again, I only had cursory knowledge of the story, so I could sort of make out what the story was trying to do, and appreciated some of the twists and turns it took to get there, however my girlfriend, who watched the movie with me, had no prior knowledge of the Manson Family and was left thoroughly confused.
But regardless of whether you made sense of the intricacies of the story or not, you can’t argue that the stars of the film, DiCaprio, Pitt and Robbie, all brought their A-game. DiCaprio as Dalton provides a great turn as a B-grade actor clutching desperately at anything to be relevant again. A hybrid of few famous stars that the time, Dalton personifies the old guard of Hollywood being left behind by the new upstarts sweeping through the industry. He is a bit of a fop, and it’s great seeing Leo in a role where the character is so unsure of himself.
Pitt’s Cliff Booth, on the other hand, is effortlessly charming and self-assured. More of an every-man, he takes everything in his stride and just seems to be one of those all-American guys who just go through life, riding with the punches. Booth is likeable and down-to-earth, and yet there is a dark side that is ambiguously hinted at in one of his story arcs, and how you see his character is totally determined on what side you fall on in that ambiguity. Especially in the movie’s final act.
And lastly Robbie. As Tate, Robbie has the fewest lines of the main cast, but what she does with her expressions and just overall body language is far more effective than if Tarantino had chosen dialogue for exposition. For those who know Tate’s story, Robbie’s portrayal adds a layer of sweetness and also a sadness to the young actress.
Once the movie was over, I actually went home and read about the characters in the film and the story made a whole lot more sense to me, and actually improved the film in my eyes, so if you are going to see this film, please make sure you do your homework and have boned up on the Manson Family and Sharon Tate.
Tarantino is still a great film-maker but I don’t think Once Upon a Time in Hollywood lives up to some of the other films in his staple, and it’s something you can easily watch at home. I give Once Upon a Time in Hollywood a 7 out of 10.
And yes, there is an end credit scene 🙂