Sometimes, less is more. Even when it comes to Quentin Tarantino (Warning: Contains mild spoilers).
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an impressive film. It’s got great acting, stunning visuals, and a twist ending, all laced with the sort of attention to detail you’d expect from the nuttiest of film nuts out there. It’s a beautiful homage to a very specific moment in time, so why was the film so hard to like?
Quentin Tarantino’s ninth – and if we’re to believe his retirement plans, second to last – film centres on middle-aged Hollywood actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo di Caprio) and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) in the year 1969. The pair once starred as the lead in popular western TV series Bounty Law but have since fallen on career lulls: Dalton playing bit-part bad guys and Booth a studio pariah after a backstage altercation with a certain Hong Kong-American martial arts star.
While Booth lives in a dusty trailer park with his pit bull, Dalton lives in luxury next to actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her husband, director Roman Polanski on Cielo Drive – the most infamous site of the very real, very brutal Manson family murders. Naturally, Once Upon a Time’s wholesome dose of 60s nostalgia is tinged with the spectre of gruesome violence, dangled in front of the audience throughout the entire film – all 161 minutes of it.
For the better part of two hours, Once Upon a Time operates as a “a hangout movie”, showcasing everything Tarantino has ever loved about Hollywood’s bygone era – drive-thru cinemas, bell-bottom jeans, spaghetti westerns, Steve McQueen, the TV show F.B.I, martial arts, the Playboy mansion, and roads filled with cars with hoods the size of French doors. It’s all in there, crammed into every breathable space, even when it didn’t need to be, even when it veers straight into directorial fetish and indulgence. Two hours inside Tarantino’s dense, sprawling, meandering wet dream is definitely someone’s idea of a good time, but not everyone’s, especially when every year seems to bring forth another new movie about the world of making movies (Hail, Caesar!, La La Land, Trumbo, Cafe Society, the list goes on).
Its most contentious fault, however, has to do with the film’s female characters. While Pitt and di Caprio have all the room in the world to convey the many sides of their characters and friendship, the same can hardly be said for Robbie’s Tate, who floats through the movie as a spectacle: an ethereal beauty, something to behold and admire. It’s as if the film is using her as a means of saying ‘look how magnificent and radiant she is, wouldn’t it be awful if something were to happen to her?’ taunting its prospect every time she appears on-screen. She barely has room to express her genuine self bar one standout scene where Tate goes to a theatre to watch her own film, quietly taking pleasure in the theatre’s reaction to her performance.
Then there’s Francesca, Dalton’s beautiful but seemingly clueless Italian wife, as well as Booth’s wife, briefly depicted as shrill, nagging, and heavily suggested to have been murdered by Booth for being precisely that. Then there are the Manson girls – a bunch of prepubescent teens who are either happy-go-lucky hippies or glowering menaces. At least national treasure Zoë Bell didn’t get the shit end of the stick – her fleeting cameo was a magnificent, sweary tirade of no fucks given.
In its final act, the film abruptly shifts course with a brief eruption of ultraviolence. Yes, the Manson family are involved, but not as history dictates. There was genuine concern Tarantino’s penchant for gore would result in a Manson murder film of extremely poor taste – a play-by-play of the Tate murders would’ve been beyond awful. Thankfully, that doesn’t eventuate, and what we get is a subversion of events similar to Django Unchained (the slave owner’s death) or Inglorious Basterds (Hitler’s demise). It’s both oddly satisfying and deeply unsettling, and almost makes up for the film’s first two hours.