Quentin Tarantino is one of my favourite filmmakers. I’ve loved his work ever since I saw Pulp Fiction for the first time when I was 15, and nowadays, a QT film is an event in and of itself, as the world celebrates the outspoken auteur of Hollywood.
Now on his ninth (and supposedly penultimate) film, QT has tackled many areas of life and characters, now he’s made a film very close to his heart, about a time period and place he knows and adores, he even went as far as calling this his ‘Magnum Opus’.
While it’s great that he still has that amount of passion for his films 25+ years into his career, I can’t help but being a little bit cautious when I hear a director speak this way. It rings too many bells that remind me of films like Waterworld, or Heaven’s Gate, films made with love and great affection by their creators, but which cost a lot and lost a lot more.
However, my faith is well placed in QT’s capable hands, as I prepared to be immersed in his latest offering.
Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a washed-up former TV star, fallen on hard times following a few poor career choices. Still, he’s in the middle of the Golden Age of Hollwood, and together with his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) attempts to revive his career.
QT’s films have a habit of sprawling out in a way that makes story synopses highly difficult. Have you ever tried summing up Pulp Fiction in a few sentences? It’s not easy, and OUATIH is no different.
Telling three separate stories parallel with each other must be a daunting task to set out on, but in experienced hands like QT’s it looks like child’s play. The three stories meld together effortlessly into a beautiful collage of Hollywood life.
It is, in many ways, a love letter to all Hollywood was. From the beautifully realised period settings, to the actors who were around, it’s a classic cinema nerds dream, and cinema nerds don’t come much bigger than Quentin Tarantino. He manages to squeeze in aspects of things beloved about the era, even touching on the Westerns being produced at that time, hell, even the title is in reference to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time films (Leone is one of Tarantino’s favourite filmmakers, so this reference is no surprise.)
You come to expect certain things of a Tarantino flick, you expect firecracker dialogue, graphic violence and language, memorable performances, and most of all you expect a good time, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood duly delivers on all fronts.
The bar couldn’t be set much higher for QT, his films are at best all-time classics, and at worst still great. He set a high bar in 1994 with Pulp Fiction, and although he hasn’t surpassed it since, he’s come damn close on a number of occasions, and he does so again here.
The sense of love that has gone into the depiction of Hollywood in 1969 really helps you become immersed in that world. If a film is made with love and devotion, an audience can feel that, and are more likely to react, and as I’ve said previously, this is a love letter. From the portrayal of the actors, the soundtrack, even the deep undercurrent of imminent dread, all of these create a landscape of an ever-changing world.
From an acting standpoint, it’s staggering too. Corralling that many actors into one place ad then getting the absolute best out of all of them is no mean feat, admittedly however, the talent is of the highest quality.
My personal favourite Leo DiCaprio performance was directed by Tarantino in the excellent Django Unchained, where he portrays the sadistic Calvin Candy, so the prospect of the two of them teaming up was a tantalising one, to say the least. QT gave Leo a fantastic character in Django, and so so again here. Rick Dalton is a complex beast, he’s all of the stereotypes of a 60’s Hollywood actor rolled into one, combined with a vulnerability rarely seen in such people. He’s anxious, he’s lost his confidence, and his character is at his best in the more emotional moments, as opposed to the more braggadocios.
Brad Pitt almost steals the film right from under Leo’s nose with a surprisingly dark and mysterious turn as Cliff, seemingly the quiet man, there are hints of a more violent nature, but his real success is in his relationship with Rick, and both actors have incredible chemistry straight out of the gate.
Fittingly for a film whose director is as famous as the actors, the film is impeccably directed. Shot on 35mm as is Tarantino’s standard, it adds to the already retro feel of the film by feeling like it could have been shot in the late 60’s and his use of camera shots to aid the story is as on-point as always. He’s always had a flair for the visual, which is what makes him so great as a filmmaker, it feels like he’s using the art-form in itself to aid the story, rather than just filming a story, he uses the camera in interesting ways to help him, along with his non-linear and off-the-cuff scripting, it’s all a factor in what makes him so great.
It would be remiss of me to talk at length about this film without acknowledging the controversy around it. Tarantino is no stranger to controversy, ever since his first film, people have blamed him in aiming violence that is endemic in society, as ludicrous and nonsensical as that criticism is, it wasn’t the prevailing one this time out.
The inclusion of the Manson murders in his story was a bold move, to say the least, and I won’t dwell on it for too long as I risk giving too much away, but I will say that the subject matter is handled delicately when it comes to the inclusion of Sharon Tate, and in no way glorifies, or justifies their crimes. People will always be fascinated by the darkest reaches of society, and it would be churlish to deny that.
In conclusion then, Quentin Tarantino continues his near-flawless run of great films, this isn’t his best effort, it may even be a bit over-long, and his fascination with feet continues to disturb me, but it is a beautifully realised gem of a film, celebrating the past by showing us how good film can be in the present. It’s a Tarantino film for sure, although, not as full-tilt as you’ve come to expect, he may have even matured a bit, but it’s still undeniably QT, and undeniably a wonderful film.