Once Upon a Time in Hollywood - Tarantino Hits the Mark Again
Quentin Tarantino is back with his ninth movie. As per usual, his movie envelopes the audience into a cinematic world. In this case, the world of 1969. Tarantino isn’t one to rest on his laurels and this movie proves that fact by the way he goes against his tendencies. Tarantino slows down the pace of this movie, saving the crazy violence his movies are famous for to the very end of the film. The climax of the movie is a near perfect crescendo of unfocused evil running full speed into an engine of rudderless chaos.
The pace of the movie is nearly as methodical as the opening hour of Deathproof (Tarantino’s 2007 film featuring Kurt Russell as a serial killer who uses a stunt car as his weapon). The difference – and it’s a big one – is the truly masterful acting that we see displayed by Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. The two men possess an incredible chemistry. We see actor Rick Dalton dealing with the sudden awareness that his long struggling acting career may be over. His loyal best friend and stunt double, Cliff Booth is at his side as a modern-day manservant. If Rick needs a ride, Cliff drives him. If Rick needs his TV antennae fixed, Cliff fixes it. Together, these two men are struggling to deal with changing of the American culture from the conservative 50s to the swinging 60s. Both TV shows and movies have changed radically as the audience has evolved. As Rick struggles to find consistent work, his stunt double has even less hope for consistent employment.
The interplay between the two of them is less chatty than the relationship between most Tarantino duos of the past. Despite this difference, the two share a bond that is at least as deep as that of Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield of Pulp Fiction fame. To be frank, the first hour of the movie is largely dominated by the two of them doing very little. The depth of their relationship is shown by their nods of understanding and instinctual responses to one another. Some of the conversations are punctuated by silence patches during conversations. Cliff is the perfect loyal soldier and Rick clearly appreciates his loyalty though rarely comments on it directly. Almost instinctively, Rick emulates the behavior of the tough Cowboys he portrayed on his way to stardom in the late 50s and early 60s. But you can’t take your eyes off of the duo.
Rick lands a part on a new Western. He’s in his lesser role of being the bad guy that the hero of the show defeats in order to show the standard western story and to build up the actor in the eyes of the audience. This is done by having the star of the new show winning a fight with a fading leading TV star of yesterday. (As a side note, this story has played out regularly in professional wrestling rings since the sport started in the early 1900s.) As Rick finds a way to make the most out of this role, he’s on the edge of making a career decision that will take him to Italy to make spaghetti westerns ala Clint Eastwood.
To make things more interesting, Cliff has to kill time after being fired from a stunt double job due a brawl with (wait for it) the legendary Bruce Lee. This conflict robbed Cliff of a job but allowed him to have a spectacularly creepy run in with the legendary Mason family at their Spahn Movie Ranch “commune”. This scene builds tension masterfully and allows us to really understand that Cliff has an “on” switch that he can flip to turn into a bad ass almost instantaneously. We will see that three times in the movie and each scene is a gem of intense, focused, and effective violence.
We also get to see the Roman Polanski/Sharon Tate romance occur. This is an easy relationship to keep track of as the couple live next door to Rick. Margot Robbie is an actress that is underestimated by many because of her great beauty. She portrays a happy and by the end of the movie, a pregnant Sharon Tate. Knowing Tate’s ultimate fate makes Robbie’s performance even more haunting. Tate’s situation reminds me of a thought that I mentally repeat to myself every time I’m onboard a plane just before it takes off or lands. I can’t help but wonder, will I be known as a passenger aboard the ill-fated flight xxx? Of course, Tate has no clue what’s coming and I imagine that no one on an ill-fated flight has a clue what will befall them either – at least when they board the plane. Robbie’s performance was so full of life that the juxtaposition of her real-life death was quite moving.
This movie had four scenes that really stood out to me as classics that can stand up with Tarantino’s greatest moments. I’ll try to describe them with a minimum of spoilers:
Cliff Booth versus Bruce Lee (played with an excellent energy by Mike Moh) – Brad Pitt is totally in his element in this scene. His devil-may-care attitude was perfect to irritate the Bruce Lee character. Lee was holding court with studio employees, arrogantly describing his formidable fighting skills until Cliff laughed at Lee. Cliff’s willingness to accept Lee’s challenge to a best of three falls match is fantastic. Lee’s response to finding out from a friend that Cliff was rumored to have killed his wife - but got away with it - added a degree of levity to fantastic scene. The way Cliff ended up getting fired was a great ending to a fun scene.
Rick Dalton talking to 8 year old method actress Trudi (played by Julia Butters) – this was another scene that only Tarantino could conceive. The young actress is explaining to the beaten old actor that she stays in character because it makes her performance just a bit better than if she didn’t and she wants to be the best she can be. Rick clearly misses most of her message. As they talk, Rick, who is both hung over and trying to read a book has a revelation. He sees his similarity to the book’s hero who is a broken down Cowboy forced to realize his best days are done. His best days are clearly behind him. Trudi returns the favor of missing the point when he describes what it’s like to be a has-been and tells her she’ll figure it out in 15 years or so. Having both talk about such complex issues but both miss each other’s points made for a memorable scene.
Rick Dalton cussing himself out in the trailer – after screwing up a myriad of lines, Rick has one of the most memorable meltdowns in screen history. His screaming at himself, cursing at his drinking, his swearing to never drink again – only to almost immediately drink again - was masterful. DiCaprio’s acting skills were on full display and this is scene of an actor at a peak of his acting prowess. Since it’s a humorous scene, it will probably never be shown as an example of great acting – but it should be. The anguish that Rick is going through, the awareness of what he needs to do to improve his life, and the lack of ability to control what ails him was marvelous to watch.
Cliff’s and Rick’s battle with the Manson family – this scene is classic Tarantino violence. It is fast-paced, painfully brutal, and incredibly visceral. Pitt’s athletic build (almost Redford like in his look this movie, especially with the longer late 60s hair) makes him look like he could legitimately be a tough guy if pushed. In this scene, he is truly amazing. Sorry, not going to say anymore. Just watch it. It’s well worth the wait.
Overall this was a movie that was a joy to watch. It actually got better with a second showing. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood also surprised. It was a slower paced movie than expected from Tarantino, it had less reliance on witty banter than expected from Tarantino, and the violence was largely limited to one near perfect scene. This movie seemed to be Tarantino trying to not simply lean into what he knows he can do well, but rather Tarantino trying to show his fans that he has more tricks up his movie making sleeve. It was an excellent movie that didn’t surprise by being good - but did surprise by being good in a fashion that was unexpected.
Now, if we could just get Paramount, Tarantino, and the Kelvin Timeline Star Trek cast to get together to make a memorable tenth Tarantino movie. It probably won’t happen, but pairing the greatest living filmmaker with one of the greatest sci-fi franchises would be a joy to behold.
I give this movie an A-. Go see it. You’ll be happy you did.