Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019, Sony Pictures)
Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Featuring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern and Al Pacino. Narrated by Kurt Russell.
SPOILER ALERT: Please note that some of the film’s plot is discussed in detail below.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a darkly comic drama set in Los Angeles in 1969. It is a classic Tarantino film, written and directed by him and for which he also had final cut privileges. As usual the technical aspects of the film are superb, and the cast of veteran and highly talented new actors create a series of engaging scenes.
Fading Hollywood actor Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) and his stunt double, best friend and drinking buddy Cliff Booth (Pitt), face the diminishing career opportunities confronting them in middle age. Dalton is full of anxiety, while Booth is non-plussed. Dalton lives in a Hollywood home, next door to Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his wife Sharon Tate (Robbie), though he hasn’t met them. The film follows a parallel story of Sharon Tate, enjoying life and delighting in the success of her early film roles. She is at the precipice of something grand, and life is good.
Much of the first half of the film is taken up with Dalton trying to secure new film parts and helping his friend Booth get stunt jobs. There are some great moments of Dalton on a film set preparing for or acting in scenes, that are both riveting and comic. I marvelled at DiCaprio’s performance as Dalton. Booth reminisces an on-set fight with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), and appears to be getting the better of him before it is suddenly brought to an end. The key thing to remember here is in the title of the film – ‘Once Upon a Time’ – it is a fairy-tale. There are plenty of editing tricks and devices to indicate that what we see here is just a nostalgic memory. I say this because some reviewers seem to be perplexed or outraged that a stunt man might stand a chance against Bruce Lee. No, it’s a fairy-tale. The point is to show that Booth is a no-nonsense tough guy, not scared of anyone. And also we hear that he might have killed his wife years before, though it is never crystal clear. You don’t mess with a guy like this.
The second half of the film takes on an increasingly darker tone as the Manson Family are introduced, culminating in three of them breaking into Dalton’s home to murder the occupants. This is Tarantino’s inverting of history: late on 8th August 1969 they go not to Tate’s home next door but to Dalton’s, and things do not go as planned; it is the three assailants who die a violent death. Justice is served.
This is a very well-made film, with excellent film craft and post-production. The entire cast is exceptional. There is a not a single weak performance, and DiCaprio in particular is outstanding. He’s funny, dramatic and sensitive. Cinematography is excellent. Sound and musical score are all top notch. Dialogue is very good and keeps the audience engaged. What I liked too about the film is the deliberate insertion of editing ‘mistakes’. Obvious, in your face ‘mistakes’. But they’re not. They tell the audience that even the ‘real’ bits are edited versions of the truth. I liked this trick.
What of the narrative? Though the first half of the film relates to the second half, it is really two slightly different films but with some common characters and places. The first half is a slightly comic drama about an aging actor and his buddy struggling to be relevant in the industry. Part Two is a violent revenge, eye-for-an-eye action film, with occasionally dark humour. The two parts are connected but they are definitely set in different tones and have different central tensions and focus.
And while I expect to see violence splashed across the screen in a Tarantino film, I found I was particularly uncomfortable with this one, and I think so was every woman and about one half of the men in the cinema I saw it in. In one sequence, three house intruding assailants – nasty people for sure – each get a protracted violent death. But it is how the two young women’s suffering is shown that is most uncomfortable. The worse thing is that the women’s impending deaths start with their faces being smashed. Even more confronting was that it was this sequence that received the most boisterous cheers of approval from half of the men in the cinema. This is too close to how so many women actually die in homicidal violence in USA, Australia and around the world every week, by men who have a history of violence against women. Part of the reason so many of us found this so disturbing was the reaction of the loud men in the audience. But we can’t blame Tarantino for that…or can we? Perhaps it is the kind of rough justice that appeals to some people? There is no doubt that fatal violence is depicted in lots of successful films. I like The Godfather trilogy among many others, but the message in that collection of films is that violent justice only makes things worse. I am not suggesting that a film maker cannot make their own film in their own creative way because of the way some people react in an audience. But it does show that films – narratives and themes – sit in a wider context of societal norms. At this particular time in the world when campaigns to educate people about homicidal violence against women are picking up ground, Tarantino chooses to make a film with an inferred wife killer as the apparent hero, and this makes me very uncomfortable.
I will end by saying: despite all this, Tarantino does something in the narrative that I liked and I think was very commendable. He shows us Sharon Tate, bright and bubbly and enjoying life. And isn’t that a better way to celebrate her life than as a victim of sadistic violence. She was more than that. I won’t rate this film with Stars. You decide if you want to see it – but be warned.