The ninth film from auteur director Quentin Tarantino isn't quite like anything the director has done before. Where his films have always had personal touches in them, the core story of Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood is deeply personal. The film is largely about losing one's place in Hollywood, something that Tarantino clearly feels is happening to him. The digital revolution has all but done away with film stock and the constant onslaught of comic book films has made sprawling, character-driven epics like this a thing of the past. It is a bittersweet, sometimes somber and ultimately sweet meditation on being a has-been. My guess is this will not be the film fans will be expecting. It is something new for Tarantino and it is something wonderful.
Tarantino has always included obscure film references in his films. There are whole websites devoted to calling each one out. With Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood, the references are no longer inconsequential. They are text here, essential to the rich experience of the film. The title itself evokes Sergio Leone's masterpiece and there is an important reason Tarantino does this. He is evoking a type of film no longer made, sprawling and structurally unique, as well as nodding to the Western and how they play with history. f you leave the film feel underwhelmed, you may need to do your homework.
A large part of the film takes place on a weekend in 1969. TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his pal and stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) are struggling to find their place in Hollywood. Rick's hit Western show Bounty Law is over and Rick now gets bit parts on TV, often playing the villain. A producer, played by Al Pacino, encourages him to go to Italy and be the star in spaghetti westerns. Cliff seems happy to go with whatever Rick decides, so long as there is work for him.
At the same time, Tarantino contrasts Rick's fall from stardom with Sharon Tate's rise. Played wonderfully by Margot Robbie, Tate represents the idealistic enthusiasm of Hollywood. In one great scene, Tate sneaks into a screening of The Wrecking Crew to watch herself on the big screen. Her bright-eyed energy is undercut by dread. Tarantino knows that we know what happened in real life to Tate and he uses this to create an air of melancholy.
As Rick, DiCaprio gets to play with his own image. Rick is all suave leading man in front of the camera. Behind it, he is an anxious fit with a stutter and nasty cough. His insistent cough is a representation of his fight against obscurity like he is choking on the decline of his career. Pitt hasn't been this charismatic in years. Cliff Booth is destined to go down as career highlight. He is unflappable and incredibly cool in the face of danger, whether it be in a hilarious fight with Bruce Lee or a run-in with the Manson family.
Tarantino takes his time with Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood. The pace is slower than his previous films. He regularly takes the time to paint this time-period of Los Angeles. Robert Richardson's cinematography creates a sunny, dreamlike rendering of the era full of glowing neon signs, classic cars, and fashion. Some will likely call out the lack of snappy dialogue and action. The film is closer to Jackie Brown than something like Inglorious Bastards, even though this similarly plays with history. The ending is a doozy. It would spoil things to discuss it here but it will likely fuel conversations for weeks.
The film is a lament of the end of an era and the end of a certain kind of filmmaker, which Tarantino sees himself as. The film is deeply personal and marks a fitting end to one of my generations greatest talents.