People who have already seen Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood keep talking about “all the think pieces” that will inevitably follow. Does that mean this has to be a “think piece”?
That depends on how you look at it, I suppose. I mean, I do have questions. For instance, do we really need to see Brad Pitt bashing a young woman’s face against a mantelpiece so many times? 25 years into his career, is there a point at which we tire of his long-evident obsession with ultraviolence? Does it really make much difference that the women beaten to a pulp in this movie are murderous “Manson Family” members?
Ironically, well into the second half of this film, I found myself marveling at the apparently total lack of violence in it. It really seemed to be only about a fading movie star, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his best friend / stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), struggling with the waning of their careers in golden-age, 1969 Hollywood, and both Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and a bunch of the Manson Family (including . . . wait, is that Lena Dunham??) intersecting with their lives in increasingly creepy ways.
But fear not! Or have some appropriate fear, depending on your point of view. This movie, after spanning the length of a standard full-length film (Tarantino films are never short), takes a turn. It seems relatively mild at first, when Cliff Booth beats up a “hippie” who has slashed his car’s tire. Up to this point, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood seems mostly just to be a remarkably slavish ode to Old Hollywood.
And I mean “remarkably” even by Tarantino standards. His films have always been in one way or another an ode to a certain type of cinema he loved growing up, usually quite pointedly focused on genre. In this one, the set designs are a sight to behold. This is a guy who always had an unparalleled attention to detail, but it is particularly focused here, given how many scenes are on meticulously recreated late-sixties television and movie sets.
That said, this is a movie made for cinephiles. Tarantino loyalists are likely to be pleased as well — they certainly won’t give a shit about its so-called “think piece” potential. (That’s not necessarily a compliment.) This film also engages in a sort of revisionist history quite similar to that in Inglourious Basterds (2009), which offers a level of intrigue all its own to certain audiences.
But the casual moviegoer? Even the casual movie fan? I’m not sure the rest of the world will have as much patience for this. Tarantino’s last film, The Hateful Eight (2015) clocked in at a labored three hours and seven minutes, and then became his third-least successful movie — quite the come-down after Django Unchained (2012), his second-most successful movie (after Pulp Fiction). Shooting scenes in many fantastic overhead crane shots will not, for many, much make up for how very, very long Tarantino consistently keeps each of his scenes going with hardly anything happening in them. As ever, the man is almost defiantly self-indulgent in his film making.
The thing is, a strong argument could be made for it all being justified. Dubious storytelling choices notwithstanding, Quentin Tarantino now sits comfortably in the position of American director with a body of work that cannot be denied or ignored, a man far more influential than most, who literally changed film making even in the context of cinematic homage. His entire filmography will therefore be scrutinized for decades to come, right alongside Stanley Kubrick or Orson Welles. I don’t know that anyone will ever in their right mind claim Tarantino to be in the same class as such directors, but he certainly rivals them in cultural impact. And that meas, inevitably, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is a part of that.
And plenty of it presents itself as such. There is no question that this is the work of a seasoned, assured, masterful director. I’m less inclined to use such descriptors for him as a writer. And, yes, even aside from the shocking sequence of violence near the end, there are really no female characters to be found with any strength or depth — not even Sharon Tate, who barely even has any lines. I’m not sure the film should be judged for that alone, though; there is clear intention to how every character is used, even the minor ones, which include Emile Hirsch as Sharon Tate’s husband; Al Pacino as a bespectacled Hollywood agent; and Bruce Dern as an old man being used by the Manson family. Sharon Tate herself is presented as a hopeful, perhaps naive, young woman with a promising acting career ahead of her, albeit with the retrospect complications of being married to Roman Polanski (uh oh, more “think piece-iness”!). Here fate here only reveals it to be surprising as soon as you think again about it. There’s a stealth quality to how Tarantino uses her, which perhaps many who complain about the under-use of female characters are missing.
And I am not inherently anti- any story that focuses on male characters, incidentally. The issue at hand is simply getting more female stories told, as told by women. That just isn’t this particular movie, which is about two incredibly close (but never homoerotic! — unless you want to stretch and count that “carry his load” line) best friends. I simply also admit to being uncomfortable with the time and energy put into how two would-be murderesses get beaten and torn to a bloody pulp — because it goes far past the point of serving the story. And if there is anyone interested in overkill, it is Quentin Tarantino.
There’s a lot of greatness to this movie, from the production design to the lead performances, which make it well worth seeing for many different people for varying reasons. If there is anything to Tarantino’s later work that distinguishes it from his early output, however, it is that his early stuff was eminently re-watchable. These days, his movies still impress in many ways, leave you feeling like they were worth seeing, but that there is little reason ever to see them again, at least outside of an academic film workshop.