Quentin Tarentino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a masterpiece of mood, tone and directorial command. The film is at once a classically Quentin Tarentino style fetish film, a film that explores and lives within the things that Tarentino has long shown an obsession for and a much looser, more relaxed movie than what Tarentino has made before. Yes, the characters are still whip smart and the dialogue comes in bursts of wordy pop aphorisms, but the mood is much more subdued than we are used to with QT and it works really well for this story.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton. Rick is a former television star, the star of the NBC series “Bounty Law” on which he played famed bounty hunter Jake Cahill. However, since the series went off the air several years before the story we are being told here, Rick has struggled to get parts, settling most often to play bad guys to a new generation of Jake Cahill’s eager to get a shine off of punching Jake Cahill in the face.
This new reality for Rick is brought home in a conversation with an agent played by Al Pacino who does not mince words. The agent is trying to seduce Rick into using what is left of his star power to make several Italian spaghetti westerns, a move that would force Rick to move to Rome for six months. Rick doesn’t like the Italian westerns, he feels they are beneath him. The offer is an indication to Rick that his career has truly hit the skids.
Keeping Rick from a full on meltdown is his best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Cliff is a pragmatist who points out that spending six months in Rome making westerns is better than sitting at home doing nothing, something that he’s been forced to do more often of late since his stunt career hit the skids. There is a rumor about Cliff that has made the rounds in Hollywood and his work as Rick’s stunt double has come to halt.
Now, Cliff works as Rick’s driver and Man Friday, someone who handles tasks that Rick has no time for. Being that Cliff doesn’t have much to do, and because he genuinely does like Rick, Cliff actually appears content to live on this way, running errands for his friend, driving him around and generally just hanging out at his modest trailer with his dog, drinking beer and watching Mannix. It’s not much of a life but it is Cliff’s life.
Running parallel to the stories of Rick and Cliff is the story of Sharon Tate. History tells the tragic tale that Sharon Tate, the bright, young rising starlet, married to the hottest director on the planet, Roman Polanski, is best remembered for having been murdered. Sharon was one of the victims of The Manson Family, another thread moving through the background of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Margot Robbe plays Tate at her most breathtaking and youthful. Her beauty and effervescence underlines the tragedy of what is to come.
The Manson Family provide one of the most unique and fascinating sequences of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a brief mini-movie within the movie. Cliff becomes enamored of a young Hollywood hippie hitchhiker named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley). After offering Pussycat a ride, Cliff finds himself at Spahn Ranch where he and Rick had filmed many episodes of Bounty Law some 8 years earlier.
Arriving at the ranch, Cliff is surprised to see the former film lot is now the home of a large group of hippies. The place is a full on commune but with a palpable sense of cultishness. Cliff was once familiar with the much older owner of Spahn Ranch, George Spahn (Bruce Dern) and is curious to find out if the old man has truly allowed this mob of young people to live on his ranch. You will need to see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to see how this plays out but the tension and the tight, well held mood of this sequence is riveting. Brad Pitt’s movie star charisma carries the scene and I could not take my eyes off of him.
The Spahn Ranch sequence is part of the remarkable second act of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood which separates our three leads into their own mini-stories. For Sharon Tate, she is in downtown Hollywood and decides to go see herself on the big screen in her first major role, opposite Dean Martin in one of his Matt Helm adventures. Here Tarentino crafts a breathtaking sequence where his Sharon Tate is watching the real Sharon Tate on the big screen and it is magical. There is something so innocent and beautiful in the way Robbe’s Sharon delights in the antics and acting of the real life Sharon.
As for DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, he’s on the set of yet another younger star’s television series. Timothy Olyphant plays James Stacy, a long time fan of Bounty Law who is excited for the chance to best Jake Cahill on his show, Lancer. Rick is anxious and struggling with deep angst about his place in Hollywood when he encounters Trudi (Julia Butters), an 8 year old who practices in Method Acting, insisting on being called by her character’s name, Marjabelle.
Through his emotional encounter with Trudi, Rick will have a breakdown and breakthrough moment that is an absolute must see. DiCaprio is incredible in this sequence in ways that must be seen to be believed. DiCaprio has always been a terrific actor and movie star but here, in this series of scenes, we are watching some of the best work of DiCaprio’s career. DiCaprio has presented Rick as a star beset by anxiety and vainly concerned about his star status and DiCaprio makes him vulnerable and even likable in these moments even as he is also an arrogant, self-obsessed, over-privileged actor.
I won’t talk about anything regarding the third act of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood other than to say it left me floored. It’s Tarentino in all the best ways and you need to see it for yourself. Mind you, it’s not for the squeamish, but it is incredible in the most unexpected and exciting ways. It must be experienced to be believed. The last act of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood brings the fairy tale of 60’s Hollywood to a close in remarkable fashion.
I completely adore Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The film is deeply compelling, remarkably cool and filled to the brim with those classically Tarentino moments. If you have loved Tarentino’s previous films, as I have, you are going to adore this one just as much. It’s a success of brilliant pace and unusual moments of ingenuity. The mini-story structure is perfection, each little story within the larger, overarching story works brilliantly into a whole movie that could not be more compelling or entertaining.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is one of the best movies of 2019.