In Review: Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Glenn Criddle

glenn criddle | cynical celluloid | sept. 2019

Quentin Tarantino returns to the screen with his ninth movie, a fact that seems to be specifically noted in the titles of his films these days, which is a little odd. Set in 1969 we follow fading leading man Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his faithful stunt double/handyman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as they struggle through their post-peak careers with only each other to rely on. Relegated to supporting roles and low-rent TV work, Rick eventually lands a role that forces him against his type of being the hero. The times have changed, but it's not just for Rick as on a decaying movie ranch a commune of hippies and their leader fester a resentment that's about to spill over into murder.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" is simultaneously a surprising film and quintessential Tarantino. While Tarantino has a very strong history of being referential in his movies, this one does more than just reference, it reflects. One of the things that's been a mildly contentious point with this film is its use of real figures from the time, of course, played by other actors. There's Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, Sam Wanamaker and Steve McQueen amongst others, and they're all strolling in the uncanny valley of doppelgängers which lends the scenes they're in an odd quality of being clearly a film. It's something I can easily relate to with those who found it shakes you a little out of the movie but the funny thing is I think it's entirely deliberate.

What's remarkable about “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" (such a long title) is not so much the story per se rather than what it's doing as a film. The phrase that comes to mind here is “Art imitates life, life imitates art" as a mimetic/anti-mimetic battle takes place on the screen. The films within the film often play more absorbingly than the oddness of the overall film's “real world" — where seeing the likes of Steve McQueen and Roman Polanski portrayed lends a feeling of an overtly make-believe world you'd expect from a movie. The two worlds are switched around somewhat and the scene where Rick is playing an evil cowboy antagonist in his latest film highlights this more than anything. The scene runs very much as if we were watching it as part of any movie; we get drawn in and suddenly he flubs a line, we're thrown out of the scene and as he resumes, we're soon drawn back in, only for it to happen again. The whole film is like this to one degree or another, it plays with you and it's purposefully managed by Tarantino to a tee.

This is a very carefully constructed film that's easily up there with the best that Q.T's made, it's possibly the most ambitious since “Pulp Fiction" and in my estimation, at least as clever in its execution. What's really surprising about this film is the tone. Tarantino often has a playful cynicism about his work that's tempered with an enthusiasm for the given film's genre icons. Here there's almost a sense of sadness for the “death of the sixties" that the film represents but there's also an upbeat spark from Tarantino as he gives us an old-school Hollywood ending as interpreted by the guy who brought us “Reservoir Dogs." “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" isn't just the title, it's what the film is: a fairy tale. It exploits the reality of the real life events it touches upon to great effect and ties it all up with the ending we all wanted and for once it doesn't feel disgusting for that, it feels cathartic.

This is a film for the more patient, though, it's a particularly slow-boiling film — even for Tarantino — and runs at a not insubstantial 141 minutes. The signature over-the-top violence is reserved mostly for the final act and in the meantime there's lots of talking and building of storylines in that familiar Tarantino style along with a few chunks of forgivable self indulgence. There were times I was aware of quite how much time it was taking, though, to be frank, I didn't mind it at all and the final scenes are well worth the wait. I can't remember many times in the past I've ended up exclaiming out loud out of sheer, joyful amazement and enjoyment at what I was watching, but there I was trying not to make too much of a scene, hand over my mouth to suppress very loud, and possibly inappropriate, laughs.

The central performances push Tarantino's work right over the bar. DiCaprio (Rick) sometimes gets a bit of stick for not having much range but what he does here shows that he can entirely lose himself in a script and deliver it with precision and passion. Pitt (Cliff) pretty much steals the show with his very self-assured, understated and likeable character. Despite the character of Cliff living under Rick's diminishing shadow, he does get a lot of the best lines and all the glory in the end. Margot Robbie does a wonderful turn as Sharon Tate and has one of the oddest moments as she watches the real Tate on screen at the cinema. There is a wonderful warmth towards the character and I think towards the real Sharon Tate as well, largely thanks to Robbie, who's utterly charming in the role, and the way she's shot with utter affection can't help but make you fall for Tate and dread what's coming.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" is a damn good movie and for my money, one of the most accomplished, if least showy, films in Tarantino's filmography. It's certainly one of those films that really deserves catching on the big screen if you can and I'll certainly be looking to revisiting it soon. You deserve a good film; check it out.


He's British so forgive the extra U's and the use of the letter S instead of Z. If there's one thing that typifies Glenn's writing it's the 'Video Nasties,' a long list of movies that offended all and sunder during the 1980s in the UK. It's those seemingly offensive fringes of cinema that informed his writing on cinema and the more political area of censorship with a more sympathetic approach to those films that push the limits of taste. But don't worry, he does talk about normal stuff too and isn't likely to go off on a horror movie fuelled rampage.

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