Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (which for the sake of my word count I will also refer to as Hollywood) is the ninth film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino and stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Dakota Fanning, Margaret Qualley, Luke Perry, Timothy Olyphant, Kurt Russell, and Al Pacino (plus a ton of other surprises I wouldn’t dream of ruining).
Set amidst the flashy and kaleidoscopic final moments of Hollywood’s Golden Era in 1969, the story follows Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), a self-obsessed TV actor who spends most of his time off set wallowing in his former glory, as well as boozing and cruising with his longtime friend and stuntman Cliff Booth (Pitt). As the two attempt to find their way in a once familiar industry that’s now changing forever, their lives become tangled in a complex web of stardom, drugs, hippies, cults, and the most (in)famous town in history.
I love cinema with my whole heart. It’s the air in my lungs, the blood in my veins, and it is what I feel gives me purpose in this life. And quite truthfully, I owe my journey as both a filmmaker, and more importantly as a filmgoer, to Quentin Tarantino. Long ago, as seven-year-old Killian sat on the couch watching an edited-for-TV version of Pulp Fiction (probably for the best), he felt the ignition of a spark inside his head. From then on, as I grew both as a person and a lover of film, I have never forgotten my love for both Tarantino and his epic masterworks of cinema.
And now, as we near the potential end of what has already been an illustrious career and filmography, Tarantino steps behind the camera once more to bring audiences yet another trademark ensemble drama that winds through Tinseltown in the late 1960s. However, after a string of eight successes, does Tarantino still have the right stuff as a writer/director combo, or are his days of greatness, like Rick and Cliff’s, slowly beginning to fade?
Not. Even. A. Little. Bit.
As both a film geek and a diehard Tarantino fan, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is everything I wanted it to be and so, so, so much more. Not only does this film continue to cement Tarantino’s legacy in being so many exemplary things all at once, but truly showcases his growth over the past twenty-plus years, resulting in what very well may end up being my single favorite film of the entire year.
I’ll always take an immeasurable amount of comfort in knowing that above all else, Quentin Tarantino just gets it, man. Plain and simple. He continues to run laps around so many filmmakers working today, and directs the absolute daylights out of this film in every regard. The world and characters that Tarantino crafts with a meticulous attention to detail are wholly authentic through and through, and shine in his traditionally vulgar and stylistically sharp directorial playground. But, above all else, this film feels most to me like the pinnacle of Tarantino’s evolution as both a filmmaker and a storyteller. Tarantino, no stranger to outside influences and allusion within his films, is now borrowing heavily from the one person I least expected: himself. Various flavors from all throughout Tarantino’s history are present within Hollywood, and are resoundingly present in his style, direction, insane recreation of every last detail of 1960s Hollywood, and storytelling as a whole. This film is truly what it feels like to see a director grow up and, in all the best ways, grow old. While being a love letter to so many things, Hollywood is most importantly a love letter to Tarantino himself.
A trademark aspect of every piece in Tarantino’s ever-growing cinematic puzzle is top-shelf cinematography, an element that Hollywood particularly excels in. Tarantino and his long-trusted DP Robert Richardson aren’t messing around for a moment, and visually compose this film from start to finish with intricately prestigious care and attention to every last emotional, narrative, atmospheric, and thematic detail. Whether it’s an expertly prolonged drive down Sunset Strip or notably impressive cranes over the Hollywood Hills, there’s such a heavy emphasis on cinematography that gives this film so many extra layers, and that really isn’t found many places in modern cinema anymore.
The script–which reportedly took Tarantino the better part of five years to craft–is truthfully one of my favorites of Tarantino’s ever. The way he manages to not only balance a number of threads both tonally and narratively, yet weave those threads together in the most unexpected and entertaining ways, will simply never cease to amaze me. This film is so many things because of its excellent script, including a well-rounded ensemble film, a stylistically vibrant genre piece, and a lovingly true recollection of the 1960s. In addition, this film is littered with first-rate dialogue, character writing, and fantastic moments on top of fantastic moments throughout, which is truthfully something we should all just expect from Tarantino at this point.
However, in being a true Tarantino film, there are indeed a number of moments of pure directorial indulgence. Tarantino has never been one to shy away from any sort of excess on any front, and while this may detract from the experience for some, this very reason is a significant part of why I love Tarantino so much. He’s just outright fearless, and is never one to back down from crafting moment after moment of unapologetic insanity. There are so many moments in this film that are completely wild in every sense of the word, including a finale that you’re just going to have to quite truthfully see in order to believe.
Even when facing down the heightened expectation of excellence that comes with being in a Tarantino film, this film’s remarkably stacked and wildly talented cast are exceptional across the board, including a handful of what I believe will be very real award season presences. Pitt and Robbie, in particular, radiate dramatic excellence as the fictional Cliff Booth and the real-life Sharon Tate. Pitt, as per usual, is the perfect amalgam of his signature appeal and rugged action-hero presence when the film allows for it. His character is given quite a bit more purpose than I expected in the film, and Pitt unsurprisingly steps up to the plate and delivers on all fronts.
Robbie just as equally puts her best efforts forward, relaying an alluringly hypnotic yet still resonant sweetness in all the best ways, showing tenfold why she’s considered to be one of the best actresses working today. Upon seeing Robbie’s performance in the film, Tate’s real-life sister Debra practically broke down in tears, claiming the experience was like visiting her late sister fifty years later. Although I’d save it for after at least one viewing of the film, I’ll put the whole story by Vanity Fair here. It’s a fantastic read.
The rest of Hollywood’s gargantuan ensemble are all madly entertaining in each of their own respects, particularly Russell, Pacino, and the late Luke Perry in what was his final performance. In addition to new characters Tarantino envisions, many of the film’s depictions of real-life figures in 1969 prove to be some of the film’s best characters, including various members of the Manson family and breakout star Mike Moh, who is fantastic for the few moments he’s in this film as kung fu legend Bruce Lee. There’s quite literally not a single weak link in this entire cast.
And then there’s DiCaprio.
Leonardo DiCaprio is honestly in a league entirely of his own, and quite simply continues to prove that he is one of, if not the, greatest actor of our generation. The man can effortlessly ignite whatever material he’s given with his unparalleled prowess as both a leading man and an electrifyingly charismatic onscreen presence. His dynamic and fantastic chemistry with Pitt is a large part of what drives this film both thematically and narratively, and it truly is a testament to DiCaprio’s ability that he can sometimes make Pitt feel like a supporting role. Both his adherence to his craft and his unrelenting passion for his character reverberate through every single second he’s on-screen, as he completely runs away with this entire film, and has made Rick Dalton one of my favorite characters within the Tarantino-verse. I’m not overselling this–you will be floored.
Now, for as much as I love this film and everything it has to offer, it’s worth noting that your own personal enjoyment of this film is going to depend very heavily on a couple of things. In true Tarantino fashion, this film is incredibly long. Clocking in at just about a heavy two hours and forty-five minutes, Hollywood is yet another three-hour ensemble drama in Tarantino’s overall lineup. Moviegoers not wholly invested in the experience offered by this film will likely be made to feel as though they’re suffering–like watching time emptily float by without the full understanding of why it’s doing so. Tarantino’s favor of heavy long takes and drawn out moments of atmospheric drama will probably make this one feel like a marathon to some, especially those not familiar with Tarantino’s previous works. If you’re acquainted with and/or enjoy QT’s eight films prior and are willing to fully commit to each moment and intricacy that coats every minute of Hollywood, chances are you’ll get the fullest experience possible. However, in no way is my warning here meant to come off as condescending or isolating. If you’re willing to give this film a try, even without a familiarity of what it is you’re walking into, I encourage you to do so. I just want to make moviegoers who might be outside these parameters aware that they should definitely stop to consider for a moment whether or not this film is really something they’ll enjoy.
The only thing resembling an issue that I really had with this movie concerns Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate for a couple of reasons. First, Robbie herself isn’t in this film for very long. Despite its mammoth runtime and considerably low rotation of main characters (well, by Tarantino standards, anyway), Hollywood is largely concerned with its fictional happenings in lieu of more historical depth, at times leaving real-life players like Tate to sit on the sidelines for large chunks of time. While this isn’t to say that Robbie is completely absent from the narrative altogether, as both a fan of Robbie as well as someone interested in the historical happenings of the late 60s (thanks, Inherent Vice), I found her presence in this film to be, for the most part, slightly underwhelming.
And speaking to the happenings of 1969, this film is indeed a true piece of what I like to call “The History of the World According to Quentin Tarantino.” What that essentially means is that Tarantino, while possessing expert knowledge and love for the settings in which his films take place, is not at all afraid to more or less rewrite history for the sake of his narrative and characters. I have history-buff friends who flat out despise Inglourious Basterds simply because of the historical inaccuracies littered throughout, and I’ve come to find that this particular issue sticks with more people than I thought in terms of Tarantino. While this isn’t really much of an issue for me in the case of Hollywood, I wanted to mention it because it is present in this film, and is yet another element of this film that may polarize audiences. In order to avoid potential spoilers of any kind, I won’t describe the extent or frequency that Tarantino employs this trademark, but just know that it’s here. History buffs be warned.
When all is said and done, I hereby submit Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood as yet another resoundingly compelling piece of evidence that the day Quentin Tarantino steps away from filmmaking will indeed be a tragic one. While certainly not for everyone, this film is a masterfully crafted and roaringly entertaining love letter to Hollywood, history, and cinema as a whole. Add some expert-level performances and stellar writing to the mix, and you’ve got yourself a surefire work of genius that, in my opinion, is Tarantino’s best work since Pulp Fiction. Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood absolutely deserves an A+.