Writer and director Quentin Tarantino is widely recognized as one of the most influential filmmakers of his generation. He’s created multiple classics, and has had a huge impact on not only filmmaking, but also western culture as a whole. Actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt are arguably just as influential, both starring in some of the biggest films of the past few decades. Three giants of the industry. And yet I don’t think anyone could’ve predicted that Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood would be the film that would result from their collaboration. The ninth and penultimate film by Tarantino, it’s an odd, meandering story about two men moving from one phase of life to another. And it was not what I was expecting. Which is the point. I think.
DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, once famous for an old Western TV show, now performing small roles as the villain in others. Pitt plays Cliff Booth, Rick’s long-time stunt double, although now he’s basically a glorified personal assistant. Once Upon A Time follows the two fading stars as they navigate their changing lives for a brief period in 1969. The film has an odd structure and lacks any real strong plot to tie it all together. We just drift from one event to another, intercut with flashbacks and clips from Rick’s old movies and TV shows – often to great comedic effect. Technically, Once Upon A Time is excellent. The music is fantastic – as it always is with Tarantino – and the production design is sublime, with all the costumes, props, and sets looking suitably sixties. Cinematographer Robert Richardson, who’s filmed all of Tarantino’s movies since Kill Bill, does a great job of capturing the Hollywood of the time, bathed in dusty golden light during the day, and neon at night.
Meanwhile, DiCaprio shines. In his hands, Rick is ego driven, pathetic and self-absorbed, yet still somehow sympathetic. There’s something undeniably human about him. He’s a man whose star is fading – and he’s not handling it with grace. DiCaprio also gets to play with one of my favourite acting tricks; playing a character while that character is acting. In a scene where Dalton is struggling on set, DiCaprio pulls it off with aplomb.
Unfortunately, the rest of the cast don’t shine quite as much. Pitt is fine as the aloof and mysterious Cliff. The performance is so understated that it’s almost not there. Similarly, Margot Robbie is her gorgeous, radiant self as Sharon Tate… and very little else. But to be fair, she’s not given a lot to work with. The smaller roles are filled with decent performances, aside from Zoe Bell in a cringey appearance, and Mike Moh as a bizarre alternate universe version of Bruce Lee. Although, both those roles appear most prominently in the memory of Cliff Booth, so perhaps it’s an intentional effect, meant to be indicative of the old ‘unreliable narrator’ trope. I think.
Which is the thing with the entire film. I can’t pin it down. It’s mercurial. It’s a strange film that does strange things. From the flashbacks and scenes and other films intercut into the story, to the sudden introduction of a narrator part way through. It’s constantly messing with expectations, with scenes rarely paying off in the way you expect. Which I think is the point. When we first meet Rick, he seems pretty sure of the inevitable descent of his career, but it’s not quite that simple. Once Upon A Time is constantly setting things up, only to twist the pay off. The secondary plot of the film follows Rick’s neighbours, Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate. Charles Manson (played by Damon Herriman, who reprises the role in David Fincher’s Mindhunter) also makes an appearance, and his presence is often looming over the film. If you’re familiar with the real-world history of Polanski, Tate, and Manson, then you know where the film is heading. Or do you? Whether familiar or not, you’ll struggle to predict the climax.
Tarantino used to be my hands-down favourite filmmaker. Back when I had one of those. I’ve since cooled on him and have actually started to tire of his style. His obsession with pop culture and the way it is such an all-encompassing aspect of his films has grown tiresome for me. It often feels like he’s making films for an extremely niche audience; himself. However, with Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, he’s made one of his most intriguing and perplexing films. It’s still chock full of pop culture references, but it’s somehow less jarring. Perhaps because it’s such a strangely understated film, while still being kind of wild and unpredictable. I don’t even know if I like it. I left the cinema feeling disappointed, but I can’t stop thinking about it. And the more I think about it, the more I warm to it.
This has happened to me before. Many times. No Country for Old Men. Zodiac. Doubt. All films that left me feeling odd after watching them, but have since become some of my favourite films, and the perfect example of why one viewing of a film simply isn’t enough. Other times, however, such as with Inherent Vice, multiple viewings don’t clear the fog, and my opinion remains unchanged. So I’ll need another viewing – or two – of Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood before I can give a better verdict. For now, it’s a strange and perplexing film about how things rarely work out the way you think they will. It’s a film about nostalgia, expectations, and transitions... I think.