If you were to ask someone familiar with Quentin Tarantino to name the defining features of his films, they would probably mention the dialogue, the unique storytelling, the close ups of bare feet and his irresistible tendency to resolve narratives with copious amounts of bloody violence that some might deem excessive. It is to his credit then that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (his ninth and rumour has it, penultimate film) manages to subvert these distinctive tropes and deliver what is undeniably his most human film yet.
Staged against the backdrop of 60s and 70s Hollywood, Tarantino navigates the film with a subtle duality. It is both fantasy and elegy for a time long since past, both celebration and lament, both riveting and utterly uneventful, and this duality even extends to the film’s two protagonists, where Leonardo Dicaprio’s Rick Dalton struggles with the incessant need for recognition and validation in a changing industry, while Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth remains liberated from the burdens of the world around him, anchoring the film with a carefree charm. With this juxtaposition, Tarantino infuses Once Upon a Time in Hollywood with a realism rarely seen in his previous films, treating the insecurities of his characters as simultaneously sympathetic and laughable. At lot has been made of Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate as a result of her historical significance to the story, but she is deliberately sidelined, a character who remarkably has minimal impact on the central narrative. And yet despite this, her presence is undoubtedly essential. Her frequent but brief scenes are dispersed throughout the story, preaching a simplistic love for life that energises the film with a sense of youth, adoration and innocence that neatly contrasts the two ageing lead males.
There really isn’t much more to the film than that, so it’s a testament to Tarantino’s writing and passion for a nostalgic era of filmmaking that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood never grows stale. It is undeniably self aware in its slow pace, traversing the narrative landscape without any fear of the runtime exceeding the viewer’s capacity for attention, instead letting us cruise around the dusk streets of Hollywood with Cliff Booth or sit with Rick Dalton as he comically accepts criticism and schooling from a child actor. The plot seems to meander, when in retrospect there really isn’t anything to meander away from, making it lavishly unpredictable as the film never really achieves a clear direction. Instead, events simply transpire, replicating life’s tendency to unfold in spontaneous and unplanned ways. I really wasn’t sure which route this film would take, or indeed, what it was all building towards, if anything. But following the successful formula of Inglourious Basterds, which saw Tarantino’s merry band of Nazi hunters change the course of history by gunning down Hitler, Tarantino again decides to dismiss historical fact for the purpose of providing fictional closure to the Manson Murders that saw Tate and her unborn child stabbed to death in their Hollywood home.
In an ingenious and oftentimes hilarious third act, Tarantino will have you on the edge of your seat as a drunk Dalton and drugged up Booth encounter the notorious Manson hippies in glorious, blood soaked tradition, marking a clear tonal shift as Tarantino’s signature style is restored for the film’s finale. Much of the director’s comedic timing is established by the obliviousness of the protagonists to the severity of the situations they find themselves in, and this makes the film’s violence attain both a heightened level of comedic value that is sure to garner some audible laughs, as well as genuine suspense that makes you realise just how much you want these characters to survive. It’s a tough finale to describe, and many viewers
in the cinema on my first viewing failed to appreciate Tarantino’s artistic depiction of violence, but there is an irresistible satisfaction that occurs when both Dalton and Booth are no longer facing the internal issues of relevance and professional sustainability, but actual life-threatening encounters.
While the film detours into routinely Tarantino Esque destruction at the end, the film’s constant is it’s soundtrack. The nostalgic hits combined with the cinematography create a suave synergy, oozing a coolness that makes Brad Pitt’s many driving scenes seem like a ride we never want to end. Culminating on a much quieter and nuanced idealism, Tarantino uses his violence sparingly to personify the inner conquering of his characters’ demons, leading to a satisfying tweaking of history that may just be the most rewarding conclusion we’ve ever had to a Quentin Tarantino narrative. While it may lack the sharp storytelling of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction or the diverse experimentation of Kill Bill, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood triumphs for feeling real, settling for an authenticity that evokes a melancholic but optimistic portrayal of life.