Columbia Pictures/161 min.
Director Quentin Tarantino is known for a lot of things. A great writer of dialogue, a master of tension, great taste in visual style, and having a savvy way of subversive storytelling.
One thing he might not be known for, however, is a storyteller of traditional narrative.
That’s what makes his latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, such a pleasant surprise. Starring a plethora of big-name actors as figures both real and fictional, it’s a story with high stakes for the characters but also one that is personally relatable for a Tarantino film.
Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is a TV actor of westerns trying to get into film. After a conversation with an experienced Hollywood mogul Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) he comes to a realization that he may be on the down-and-out. This is what starts the character on an almost downward spiral of his own feeling, and a character journey unlike Tarantino’s usual M.O.
Cliff Booth (played by Brad Pitt) is Rick’s stunt double, driver, and his only friend. His journey is not as deep and personal as DiCaprio’s, serving instead to advance the plot, connecting the characters’ personal path to the overarching historical one: that of the Manson family and their crimes, but more on that in a bit.
Sharon Tate (played by Margot Robbie) is the one that ties everyone together, as you see, she is Rick Dalton’s next-door-neighbor. The audience doesn’t spend nearly as much time with her as they do with Cliff and Rick, but her story is just as important.
The Hateful 8 presented an interesting challenge to Tarantino: how to find new ways to film in a relatively cozy interior location without using the same angle and shot too many times. In this film, he and his cinematographer Robert Richardson are set free. Set in 1969, the Los Angeles of the film is recreated down to the tee, with everything from studios and their backlots, to the neon signs of iconic restaurants El Coyote and others, the two shoot the film with everything from two or three camera setup, to long takes with wides and closeups, and even a Dutch angle here and there. And it is that long take that I view as the biggest innovation in Tarantino’s cinematic technique. Making fairly frequent use of it, it’s nothing flashy, like you might see of Cuaron or Innaritu, but rather constrained, made use of only when it is efficient to do so, such as when the story follows Rick through one of his rehearsals as a guest star on a TV show.
I view Tarantino as more of a great writer of dialogue than a visionary auteur. Yes, he knows to tighten the wire when it comes to composing tension onscreen. But that’s all in juxtaposition with his great writing skills. Often, his signature shot is showing people talking, and that happens here as well. It’s just as good as any Tarantino film but there’s something a little different going one.
Compared to his oeuvre, I would call this is as traditional a narrative style the director has ever utilized: that of a linear narrative that follows a character on a journey. But don’t worry, this is still very much a Tarantino film. There’s still there extremely violent, razor’s edge tension we’ve come to expect, but it’s spread out and paced differently, compared to the usual format that we’ve come to know from him.
Something really interesting about this movie is the opportunity the audience gets to spend with the characters.
Case in point: we spend time with Cliff Booth as he sits in his trailer, eating homemade mac’n’cheese, putting more focus on making dinner for his dog than for himself, and then sitting down to watch some TV. With Rick Dalton, we spend multiple days on the set of the TV show Lancer. Rick struggles to remember his lines and display an affect on the level of newcomer James Stacy, played by Timothy Olyphant. In essence, we see Dalton fail, fall, and struggle to overcome his personal challenges. And, last but certainly not least, there’s Sharon Tate. Tate’s story plays in parallel to Rick’s and Cliff’s, not really intersecting until the climax of the film. She serves as the placeholder of where Rick, but not so much Cliff, wants to be, along with her husband Roman Polanski: Hollywood elite. Being on their level should, in Rick’s mind, enhance his life, bringing him back to his glory days. But as we see in the scenes with her, Tarantino still depicts her as a normal person. When she goes to see a movie (Wrecking Crew) that stars herself, the person at the box office doesn’t recognize her. Even so, when she watches the film, we see her react to the audience reacting to her performance. It’s a great depiction of someone who we might see as larger-than-life behave like a human being.
All this brings to mind the performance of the actors: they’re just as good as one would expect with this combination. Leo fully embodies the pathetic Rick Dalton, and Brad Pitt easily fits into the gruff guy that he’s played in Fury and Killing Them Softly. While Margot Robbie is good, I do wish that she were given more to do. Although she embodies Tate overall, she doesn’t do much besides walk around, dance in her room, and do laundry. That’s not so much Margot Robbie’s fault as Tarantino’s.
In addition to the time spent fleshing out our characters, there are also a number of Tarantino’s signature vignettes, although their nature, like the whole film, is different in nature than the way he usually depicts them. His time jumps, nonlinear storytelling and crisscrossed narratives take a backseat to a more traditional, linear storytelling structure. We see the film progress from beginning to end with relatively few interruptions. Occasionally, there is an abrupt flashback, sometimes short, sometimes lengthy, that serves to explain why the protagonists are in the situations they’re in.
For Rick, we learn that the reason Cliff is driving him around is because he crashed his car and lost his license due to drunk driving. For Cliff, the reason he’s out of work and agreed to drive Rick is because he got into a fight with Bruce Lee (who is played quite well by Mike Moh, but written rather curiously) on the set of Green Hornet. There are a few others, all relating to our characters, while such jumps in time do seem a little jarring when set against such a linear narrative, they serve as a welcome shot of energy to a narrative that sometimes seems to drift along with non-events.
If there’s anything slightly negative to say about the film, it is that drifting. With all the personal time the audience spends with the characters: driving, watching TV, and fixing satellite antennae, it will seem as if nothing is happening. Tarantino probably knew this, hence the sometimes lengthy flashbacks. But that’s where the Manson family comes in. If you know anything about Sharon Tate and Charles Manson, then you already know that this movie will get dark. But it doesn’t get dark in the way one might expect. Like many of Tarantino’s films, it subverts events in surprising ways.
Something else I’d like to harp on in the humor of the film. With jokes both verbal and physical, this is much more lighthearted compared to his previous film, The Hateful Eight. Still, Tarantino does have a few of his signature, ill-timed jokes that serve to give the audience laughs and equally make them uncomfortable. It almost seems as if Tarantino has learned to look at people as people, although he still has a way to go. Although my theater found the Bruce Lee scene funny enough, (thereby I would say that it worked) it still shows Tarantino using violence done against the bodies of men of color for humor. See Marvin from Pulp Fiction and Demian Bichir’s character Marco from The Hateful Eight to see what I mean. Every time Tarantino seems to be saying something intelligent about film or some other theme, he seems to drop back three paces. Maybe he thinks he’s intelligent.
But rather than his usual shtick, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood sees Tarantino taking a measured approach to storytelling, and that is something that I can appreciate.