Film Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019)

Hello, I’m Daniel, and welcome to The Cinematic Sense, the film blog that reviews and analyses the art of cinema. This time, we’re reviewing the latest film from Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood…

On the dates of 8th and 9th August 1969, Hollywood’s golden age was brought to a shuddering halt when four members of the Manson Family cult invaded the home of Roman Polanski and his pregnant actress wife Sharon Tate. The members murdered Tate, her friend Jay Sebring, Polanski’s friend Wojciech Frykowski, his lover Abigail Folger and Steven Parent, a fifth person unconnected to Tate and Polanski. The set of murders changed Hollywood and its culture forever and is important to understand before watching Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino, which acts as his tribute to the culture he is so passionate about, and a sentimental look at what could have been.

Whilst Tate is an important character in the story, the main plot of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood revolves around fictional actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), former star of the now-cancelled Western TV show Bounty Law. He has also starred in a number of other films (demonstrated in the beginning as he chats to Hollywood producer Marvin Schwartz [Al Pacino]) but is now accepting bit parts in TV shows and pilots, lamenting that he may have hit the peak of his career. With him is his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who also acts as his chauffeur due to an accumulation of drunk driving violations; Booth himself is reliant of Dalton for work, following dark rumours that hound his career. Whilst we see Dalton on the set of another TV show, we find Tate (played here by Margot Robbie) has moved in with Polanski into the house next door to Dalton’s, and we see her at a Playboy party and watching herself in The Wrecking Crew (Phil Karlson, 1968). Also, there is the case of the Manson family, as Cliff picks up one of the members of the cult and spends a bit of time at Spahn Ranch, a former movie ranch where the cult resided.

The first thing to note is the impressive cast put together. I’ve already mentioned DiCaprio, Pitt, Robbie and Pacino, but it’s worth noting the rest of the cast includes: Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, the late Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Lena Dunham and Kurt Russell, who also narrates parts of the film. Moreover, we see real-life figures Steve McQueen (Lewis) and Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) portrayed in the film; McQueen has a humorous line at the Playboy party, but Tarantino has gained a fair bit of criticism for how he featured Lee here, which is kind of understandable (Lee is not portrayed in the best light).

The main players in the film are Robbie, Pitt and DiCaprio. Robbie does brilliantly in capturing the sense of optimism and hope that Tate conveyed, which feeds into a sense of melancholy considering what we know happens to her in real life. She may not be a major character, nor does she have many lines (another point of contention), but the scene with Tate taking in the laughter and applause from the audience watching The Wrecking Crew with her shows how well Robbie does with what she is given. Pitt is also really good as the casual Cliff, who has most of the funny moments in the film but can also be brutal when need be. However, I feel that the best performer in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is DiCaprio; as Dalton, he plays a tough as nails classical leading man in a world quickly moving away from that type of lead, as his alcohol problems catch up to him in his line of work. I found myself really impressed with DiCaprio, and it’s probably one of his best leading roles.

There are also a couple of other things; firstly, the music is outstanding, as is the case for most Tarantino pictures. Here, the songs reflect the period of the late 60s, and are punctuated by adverts and radio jingles, in a style I liked very much because it reminded me of American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973). Furthermore, the cinematography, done by frequent Tarantino collaborator Robert Richardson, is stunning and complements the slow pace Tarantino decides to take in certain scenes. For instance, there is one swooping take at the Spahn Ranch, part of a long scene that builds up the tension of Cliff being at this infamous compound.

However, the film’s main plus point is its director and screenwriter, despite some problems. Whilst the film’s length may be too long (accentuated by the slow pace of certain scenes), there are some odd editing cuts and many will think Tarantino is being too indulgent, his auteur vision creates a truly joyous and immersive experience. His attachment to the music, the films, the TV shows and everything else about the late 60s culture allows him to wallow in it and create a lively world filled with the cultural references he gained as he grew up: you could say that this is everything Tarantino loves in one film. This attachment also allows Tarantino to become strangely melancholic when he focuses on Tate and her optimism, the possible end of Rick’s Hollywood career and the nearing end of Hollywood’s golden age, caused by a set of murders he wishes never happened.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood may be the least Tarantino-esque film, but it is still a brilliantly crafted tribute to the golden era of Hollywood cinema. It could do with some trimming and editing tweaks, but Tarantino presents to us an engaging and complex world, a struggling actor trying to find his place in it, and a complex film that is his most bittersweet yet. And whilst it may not stand out in terms of violence, it does have what I would consider to be his most violent sequence which, alongside the ending, will divide a lot of people. Whether you love or hate it, it is something that you need to see, something you will definitely have an opinion on, and something you definitely need to see to believe. Overall, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino’s best film since Kill Bill Vol 1 (2003), a pretty much perfect tribute to an important era of Hollywood history, and a film you need to see right now.

So that was my review of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; if you agree or disagree, comment below this post. I do want to produce a blog post that goes into more specific spoilers and analysis, and that should be uploaded soon. If you want that and other new content delivered straight to your e-mail inbox, subscribe on the front page. And, if you want to suggest a film or topic for me to cover, comment on any one of my posts. Thank you for reading, and in case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening and good night…

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