I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s a new Quentin Tarantino film doing the rounds. Yes, everyone’s favourite director from when they were 18 and wanted an edgier auteur than Tim Burton is back, with what is being advertised as his 9th film but is at least his 10th.
This time, after languishing in the Wild West for his previous two movies, Tarantino sets his sights on the Hollywood of 1969, and the twilight period of the career of Rick Dalton: a TV actor whose legacy includes a recently cancelled TV show, and a string of hokey B-Movies with such names as “The 14 Fists of McCluskey” and “Jigsaw Jane”. Alongside the washed-up Dalton is his lifelong stuntman Cliff Booth. Booth’s eventful past has hampered his opportunities to double for Rick on past projects, but he has never allowed those obstacles to a Hollywood career to ever get in the way of his and Dalton’s friendship; when he’s not living the risky life of a stuntman, Cliff is Rick’s driver, handyman, and confidante.
Dalton and Booth are played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt respectively, and both actors are giving phenomenal performances here. DiCaprio and Pitt have, in press interviews for this film, alluded to Tarantino having given them reams of backstory for their characters – judging by the finished product, I absolutely believe it. Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth are arguably Quentin Tarantino’s most fully realised characters, and it’s a treat to be in their company for the majority of the film’s 2 hour and 45 minute running time.
Of course, when addressing Hollywood at the end of the 1960s in any medium, it’s almost inevitable that the spectre of the Manson “Family” and the brutal Tate murders would soon make itself known. Sure enough, Sharon Tate is a supporting character in this film.
I’ll admit, when I heard that Tarantino was doing a film which would include Sharon Tate and her killers as key characters, I was profoundly worried. Given Tarantino’s penchant for ultra-violence in his films, and given the precedent set for readily changing history in his films (see: Inglourious B******s), I was imagining a few ways that this film would address the tragic true story – none of which filled me with hope. With that in mind, I found Quentin Tarantino’s treatment of Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood surprisingly sensitive and, at times, even beautiful. There’s a moment just past the film’s halfway mark, where it follows Tate, played by Margot Robbie, enjoying a day free of commitments, during which she decides to visit a cinema playing The Wrecking Crew, one of the last films that the real Sharon Tate made. In the auditorium, Robbie’s Tate gets to take in the reception from her fellow moviegoers, and it’s really rather heartbreaking to see the glimpses of a bright future, which was cruelly stolen away on that fateful August night.
Unfortunately, while it’s beautifully realised, the segments leading up to the climactic encounter on August 8th 1969 feel very inessential when compared to the central story of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth. While the two stories do ultimately overlap in a way that only Tarantino could deliver, the inclusion of Charles Manson and his followers felt for me like something that could have been trimmed from the film’s overall running time.
Make no mistake, this is very much one of Quentin Tarantino’s better films, but the overall feeling I got from it was one of indifferent admiration outside of the aforementioned mini-tribute for Sharon Tate. Everything shown on screen, from the acting to the camera’s backseat perspective of various characters’ long drives through 1960s Los Angeles, is remarkable, but I was always aware of the filter through which I was being shown these images. Maybe it’s Tarantino’s innate love for the film’s setting, but it felt like his adoration trumped narrative storytelling or even basic editing; as with everything else he’s made post-Reservoir Dogs, the man simply cannot tell a story in less than 2 hours.
After watching Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, nobody would be in any doubt that Quentin Tarantino loves cinema. However, I wish that after more than 25 years as a filmmaker, that he’d have something more to say. Maybe his next film – supposedly his last, if you believe Tarantino’s self-aggrandising declarations – will have something more substantial to say.