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Quentin Tarantino’s latest feature aims for thematic maturity in its evocation of the dwindling starlight of LA in the ’60s. Sadly, it mostly meanders without much of a binding statement.
Taken at surface level, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood sounds like just the sort of film the now 56-year-old Quentin Tarantino should be making as he reaches the twilight embers of his career. Whilst its premise centres on a monstrously violent historic act, its focus doesn’t lie solely at the feet of violent men (though this might be Tarantino’s most feet-filled film yet). Instead, Tarantino’s gaze is more sweeping, and more melodic. It’s also totally self-indulgent and only sporadically entertaining.
The premise centres on another alternate history yarn like much of Tarantino’s later fare. It’s 1969, free love is curdling into something more sinister, and Hollywood is in a state of flux. What no-one yet knows is that the actions of Charles Manson’s infamous cult of bug-eyed “family” members will soon stamp an indelible mark on American culture through their sadistic murders of actress Sharon Tate, hair stylist Jay Sebring, writer Wojciech Frykowski, and heiress to the Folger coffee fortune, Abigail Folger.
The film partially follows Tate (Margot Robbie) during the months leading up to this tragic event, alongside the initially unrelated story of the fictional down-on-his-luck TV gunslinger Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). This latter pair are the core focus for much of the runtime, but as the film uncoils their paths inevitably wind closer and closer to the maw of Tate’s fate. That’s not Tarantino’s point of focus though. Instead, he’s much more concerned with how Tate’s death parallels the fading fortunes of Hollywood’s golden era.
Once Upon a Time… struggles immediately by skirting around its context. An oddly sensitive touch by Tarantino in denying Charles Manson any further on-screen glorification (he’s only in one scene) frustratingly forces a narrative link between our prior knowledge and the film itself. This might be Tarantino’s first work that doesn’t stand by itself – a cathedral built in service of another time and era that loses sight of introducing new converts into its auspices. If nothing else, the basic context of the Manson family really shouldn’t be required reading to get the full picture.
Meanwhile our heroine, Sharon Tate, is largely presented passively, with limited agency and limited screentime. Regardless, Robbie infuses her with a lightness of spirit, and Tarantino renders what amounts to a loving, if fleeting, image. The film’s most poignant sequence is also its simplest. Robbie, as Tate, watches the real Tate on screen in her last picture The Wrecking Crew, responding with genuine delight at the mirth of the crowd around her. It’s a meta moment of genuine audience interaction; a touching eulogy to Tate and her legacy.
So far, so muddled. But there’s plenty else to redeem Once Upon a Time… Tarantino’s greatest moments have often been digressionary, but it’s the quieter character beats here that land best. Cliff Booth’s quiet sideshow life with his (Palm Dog-winning) mutt Brandy provides chuckles due to its inanity, but it’s warm laughter rather than the wink-wink humour you might expect. Likewise, Dalton’s freefall into irrelevancy following his misguided attempt to launch a film career strives for genuine empathy, and for the most part earns it.
We spend much of the first hour following the pair moseying around; Dalton as he receives more and more indications that perhaps his day in the sun has past, and Cliff as he completes errands for his boss/partner, his own stuntman career clearly worn out too. Interestingly, it’s clean-cut hawaiian-shirt sporting Cliff who is most observant of the changing undercurrent threatening to pervert the hippy movement, whilst Dalton instead attempts to bury his head further and further into the Hollywood sand.
Where the film gets really interesting is when Tarantino peers beneath the festering Western wallpaper and finds something insipid and rotten. Manson’s free-loving family are camped out in the remnants of the ranch set where Dalton and Cliff used to film Bounty Law (one of many of Dalton’s productions flung into the mix), the kind of heavy-handed metaphor that successfully reframes the thematic message. What values do this new breed of American spirit represent? And are the previous generation’s values even worthy of nostalgia?
Sadly much of this is tossed out in a disjointed and tonally dissonant final act. After a sloppy time jump handled poorly through a blandly expository voiceover, much of the character growth and the thought-provoking threads are basically discarded. In many ways this finale is entertaining in a throwback Tarantino sort of way, but it retroactively devalues the rest of the work. The first act’s ramblings through the tail end of the ‘60s felt unmoored, but like the necessary building blocks to enable something more interesting to mature. Instead, they build to something dropped straight out of another film.
Coming out of a Tarantino flick querying the greater meaning is typically an exercise in futility, since so many of his best films thumb their noses at direct readings. And yet, in Once Upon a Time… Tarantino slows down his pace to such a degree that he consciously and blatantly pushes for deeper readings. When so many of the key developments carry a weight beyond his easily parodied postmodern pastiche, it’s a shame then that he switches gears rather than following through on them. What is still a frequently entertaining ride, in the ends feels quite hollow.
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