By Josh Martin
Warning: This review contains spoilers for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” has been in theaters for just over two weeks now, but it’s already a daunting film to tackle in just one essay. The lone original film to achieve significant box office success this summer, Tarantino’s magical re-creation of the tumultuous era of late 1960s Hollywood has prompted more rigorous reviews and passionate discussion than a dozen blockbusters combined. It’s rare to see a film where almost every aspect, from the macro narrative and thematic concerns to the micro moments that enhance each scene, is under such careful scrutiny, but “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” has proven to be a thrilling, memorable exception.
How does one even write about such a sprawling, richly crafted magnum opus? Can you intelligently analyze the film without spending too much time on its outrageous ending? Is there any way to produce a piece that critiques it all in one fell swoop? It’s a masterwork of some kind, and it’s essential to cut to the heart of what it’s all about. This, for better or worse, is my attempt to do exactly that.
Miraculously, all of this social media and critical chatter is surrounding a film with a fairly bare-bones narrative. To the extent that “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is driven by a plot, it’s absolutely more of a character piece than anything else. The story follows Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, an anxious, chain-smoking, whiskey sour-drinking cowboy star who’s struggling to find work in 1969 Hollywood.
After leading the popular Western “Bounty Law” for several years, Rick attempted the big leap to the movies. With minimal success on the grandest Hollywood stage, Rick and his stunt double, and chauffeur, the quiet, occasionally smart-mouthed Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), are left aimless in the current landscape. It’s February 1969 now, and Rick has spent most of his recent years playing the “heavy” on TV shows – he’s no longer the star he used to be.
When agent Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino) recommends Rick get a fresh start in the Italian film industry as a Spaghetti Western star, that’s the last straw. Holding back tears, he tells Cliff that he’s a “has-been.” To borrow a few words from The Rolling Stones’ “Out of Time,” which underscores one of the film’s most memorable montages, Rick and Cliff are finally, once and for all, obsolete. Well, at least in Rick’s eyes – Cliff doesn’t see Italian films as any kind of death knell.
But there’s no denying that change is in the air in Hollywood, as a transition between the generations and the ages is finally underway. With the social upheaval of the 1960s reaching its apex, this fantasy Hollywood is a picture-perfect snapshot of a society in transition. The movies are getting riskier (some porn premieres even highlight the marquees of downtown Los Angeles) and sexual freedom is in the air, with the mainstream world and the counterculture co-existing in a tenuous harmony. Hippies roam the streets looking for scraps, much to the annoyance of Rick and the delight of Cliff, who takes a particular liking to the flirtatious Pussycat (Margaret Qualley). Some stars are on the decline, while others, including Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), the next-door neighbors of Rick Dalton, are on their way to the top. It’s Tinseltown in prime form, just months before it all came crumbling down.
As even the film’s detractors have acknowledged, this is a beautiful, loving portrait of a very particular moment in film history, adorned with the joyful exuberance of Tarantino’s cinephilia and his abundant love for the city of Los Angeles. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” has already deservedly gained a great deal of fame for its evocation of 60s decor and the various period details on Hollywood Boulevard, demonstrating the kind of attention to the nitty-gritty that leaps off the screen at every opportunity. It helps that Tarantino consistently and deliberately directs our senses to the gorgeous power of these specific details, though not in a way that necessarily feels showy or excessive. The film, being a fairy tale in more ways than one, invites us to experience the director’s aforementioned exuberance for ourselves, taking in the sights and sounds as either a backdrop to the action or as the main event itself.
Some of the film’s most enjoyable scenes are almost exclusively atmospheric in nature, combining the aggressively carefree spirit of the era with the joy of Tarantino’s carefully cultivated soundtrack and the luscious eye candy of Robert Richardson’s cinematography. Whether it’s Cliff Booth roaring through downtown Hollywood in his car or Sharon and Roman partying with Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) and Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) on a gorgeous February evening, the effortless marriage of every detailed composition and just the right song gives the experience an irresistible charge. And considering just how many critics have been able to connect the lyrics to the narrative at hand, the film nearly plays as a jukebox musical. Nobody’s breaking out into song, but each needle drop advances the plot in its own subtle, beautiful way.
Of course, certain audience members will find their patience tested by this approach. As an employee of a movie theater, I have heard multiple complaints of “too long” or “nothing happened,”, but Tarantino may be preaching to his own devoted crowd of pop culture fetishists at times. That’s not to say that any of this is somehow inessential to the experience of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” – every digression, whether it’s suspenseful or thrillingly enjoyable to behold, serves to enhance the tricky mood of the whole film. But only so many of us are going to enjoy hearing old radio ads in between scenes, and that’s okay. For everyone else, it’s easy to get on board with the marvelous character work, which is some of the best that Tarantino has ever done.
In fact, I’d argue that for all of the loving attention shown to the sets and the soundtrack and the period details, Tarantino saves the bulk of his affection for his central characters. These are brilliant, weird, complex human beings; in other words, perfect material for actors like DiCaprio and Pitt. I’ve always been unhappy that DiCaprio won an Oscar for his tiresome turn in “The Revenant,” but his near-career-best role here (hard to unseat “Wolf of Wall Street,” in my humble opinion) makes it even more frustrating that the Academy couldn’t wait a few more years to hand the star his career award. Even though he’s the main character of the whole show, Rick Dalton is also “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”‘s finest lovable loser, an ego-centric diva who could implode at any second under the weight of his own self-medicated pressure. With Tarantino staging a two-day arc for Rick’s internal journey from total obsolescence to, perhaps, a potential comeback, DiCaprio chews up every juicy bit of dialogue thrown his way, creating a bumbling, unpredictable movie star who wants nothing more than to impress everyone else.
In two of the most affecting moments of the film, for totally different reasons, DiCaprio shows just how wounded Rick can be, generating nervous laughter and, eventually, the most unexpected kind of empathy. The first of these scenes arguably the film’s finest – comes on the set of “Lancer,” a Western TV pilot where Rick is playing the bad guy once again. During an on-set break, Rick sits down next to Trudi (Julia Butters), a young girl playing the daughter of one of the main characters. Trudi is a hardcore method actor, so she’d rather sit, read her book, and ignore Rick’s chatter. But eventually, they get talking about their books, and Rick gives her a short recap. Once he realizes just how much it resembles his own life, he begins to tear up – weirdly enough, it’s poignant for the audience as well.
Trudi comforts him, and Rick feels a certain level of confidence going into his next scene. Then he blows it. He flubs his lines, much to the disdain of director Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond) and his fellow cast members, and he’s left looking like an idiot. Here, DiCaprio delivers his most impressive burst of anarchic acting to date, as Rick goes back to his trailer and breaks down completely. It’s a hilarious, horrifyingly excessive sequence, one that features the TV star screaming at himself and swearing off drinking forever, only to take another drink from his flask moments later. By the time Rick is threatening to blow his brains out, we’re laughing, while simultaneously wondering if he really does mean it.
All’s well that ends well in Rick Dalton’s life, but the progression of his arc demonstrates a unity of performance and authorial ambition that’s downright stunning in retrospect. And in what might be an even bigger surprise, it’s arguably not the most entertaining performance in the movie, as Brad Pitt continues to prove that when it comes to delivering the sarcastic, pointed dialogue of Quentin Tarantino, he’s in a class of his own. Cliff Booth is a tougher, cooler character than Rick Dalton, and his backstory is, admittedly, one of the trickiest parts of the movie. Cliff is accused by many characters throughout the film of killing his wife, and it’s a mystery that Tarantino prefers to leave unsolved. Plus, there’s the matter of the Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) scene, a controversial moment that, for all intents and purposes, sees the aging stuntman pick a fight with the greatest martial artist on Earth for his own selfish, egotistical reasons. Just like his checkered past, his motivations and interior emotions are ultimately a mystery.
Yet Cliff is also the most important character in the movie, as he’s the essential link between Rick and Sharon’s starry Hollywood and the counterculture run amok that threatens to send the balance of the world into disarray. Cliff’s penchant for a laid-back, breezy outlook amusingly and ironically imbues the film with danger and unpredictability, since he could find himself in a difficult situation at virtually any moment. When you go with the flow everyday, sometimes you end up at the infamous Spahn Ranch, staring down two dozens members of Charles Manson’s white supremacist murder cult.
Oh, did I forget to mention that this is a movie about the Manson murders? Tarantino insisted in interviews prior to the film’s release that this wasn’t necessarily going to be the Manson story, but I would argue that “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” refutes his own logic. While, yes, Manson himself (Damon Herriman) only appears in one scene, the members of his family linger as a creepy, malevolent force, waiting for that fateful night to bring a swift end to the cultural promises of freedom and revolution. Tarantino wasn’t necessarily wrong to shift attention from the Mansons in his pre-release interviews: Rick and Cliff are undoubtedly the central focus of the story, and anyone expecting the straight-forward Manson story will be sorely disappointed. Yet in the end, all roads lead to the night of August 8th, 1969 in this universe, and even Tarantino can’t avoid the inevitable violence.
But one thing’s for certain – he does his absolute best to delay the conflict. For those with an intimate knowledge of Tarantino’s work, the Spahn Ranch sequence, a tense encounter with Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning) and the Manson Family that serves as the centerpiece of the second act, seems destined to end in spectacular bloodshed. The scene is tense, dramatically spare, and utterly frightening at times, portraying Cliff as a man in way over his head, as the Manson followers coalesce around a stranger that they completely distrust. He walks straight into the hornet’s nest, and there’s a good chance he’s going to have to fight his way out. But instead of giving us the violence that we’re anticipating, or fearing, Tarantino delays the carnage, allowing Cliff to escape by the skin of his teeth. At Spahn Ranch, there’s no shootout or chaotic battle: only the diffusion of tension and the gift of another beautiful California sunset. By the end of the night, Rick and Cliff are drinking beers and watching FBI; the hectic day is a distant memory.
Still, the events of August 1969 are on the horizon, and just like every critic must reckon with the events of the controversial, complex ending, the first two acts of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” are irreversibly changed by the finale. Though every bit of evidence I read before seeing the film indicated that Tarantino was, once again, going to change history, the language of the film itself does its best to convince even the most seasoned Tarantino viewers otherwise. With Kurt Russell’s voice-over looming large, Tarantino delivers a procedural-like breakdown of August 8th, as Rick and Cliff return from Italy and Sharon goes about her own daily life. Eventually, evening approaches, and the Manson family arrives on Cielo Drive.
What happens next is both familiar and distinctly different from the carnage on display in “Inglourious Basterds,” Tarantino’s most famous revisionist fantasy to date. The bloody extravaganza of “Django Unchained” applies too, but it’s not as brazen about rewriting the ugliness of the past as his other work. In the WWII fantasy, there are deliberate acts of heroism to take down a historical evil, an evil that was allowed to prosper by a complicit society. Hitler’s death-by-machine-gun and the destruction of the Third Reich in “Basterds” is the product of a well-orchestrated, unabashedly heroic plan and an intervention from a fictional baddie (Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa), the culmination of a purposeful, completely fictional plot that has been simmering since the film’s start.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is different: for the first time, Tarantino seems to be playing around in the butterfly effect sandbox, questioning if minuscule changes could have altered the course of events. The night stumbles out of control quickly, and each minor change sets a new course of events. A drunk Rick Dalton comes out to yell at Tex Watson (Austin Butler) and this anonymous band of hippies. The muscular, freakishly strong Cliff – who even met Tex at Spahn Ranch – just happens to be at the house at the same time, tripping out on an acid cigarette. From this small series of changes, the Manson followers decide not to storm the Tate house, instead opting to take revenge on the cowboy star who berated them – and by their twisted logic, the TV star who taught them to kill. Some have posited that Rick and Cliff’s actions in the finale are heroic or savior-esque in some way, but that’s simply incorrect. Of course, as Vanity Fair’s K. Austin Collins astutely mentions in his essay, the violence is “motivated from off-screen,” which leads us to perceive them as heroes of some kind. But in Tarantino’s story, Rick and Cliff are granted the chance to alter history through the gift of circumstances: in the context of the film, it’s an excessive show of self-defense.
Regardless, the cross between diegetic and non-diegetic influences reaches a fever pitch in the film’s climax, which pits Cliff, his dog Brandy, Rick, and Dalton’s new wife Francesca (Lorenza Izzo) against the real life Manson murderers. After delaying the inevitable for nearly two and a half hours and avoiding the graphic violence and excessive bloodshed that has defined his filmography for two decades, Tarantino finally delivers the catharsis we’ve been waiting for. Even in the context of the scene, Tarantino waits until the absolute last moment – until Tex Watson cocks his gun directly in Cliff’s face – to unleash hell.
But when it does, the Manson followers meet their end in an increasingly gruesome, delightfully absurd manner, as Tarantino summons a distinctly fantastical approach to scorch these villains for good. Tex is mauled by Brandy before getting his face smashed like a pumpkin, Patricia Krenwinkel’s (Madisen Beaty) face is bashed by Cliff, and Susan Atkins (Mikey Madison) receives the most extravagant end, thanks to some help from a flamethrower. That final attack is possibly the film’s most wicked cross between historical alteration and cinematic satisfaction, as it’s the payoff of a gag set up all the way back in the first scene of the movie (Rick used a flamethrower while shooting “The 14 Fists of McCluskey”). It’s the kind of thing that only happens in the movies – but wouldn’t it be great if cinematic logic truly applied to real life?
All things considered, the final showdown is an excessive, extreme, exhilarating and extraordinarily enjoyable sequence to behold, another insane Tarantino set piece that sends the Manson family on a quick trip to hell. Some have argued the film is too vicious towards the brainwashed followers of Manson’s cult, an opinion I find both insensitive and profoundly incorrect. For those who are aware of the details of that horrific real-life night, or even if you just have a cursory knowledge of the case, much like I do, the third act is none other than justice of the highest order. It is Tarantino’s desperate attempt to change the course of events, and he throws everything at his disposal on the screen in order to create a happy ending. And even though each Manson family member suffers a vicious fate, a gory end that is always arguably 10 times more violent than necessary to get the job done, the conflicting forces from both the narrative and the exterior history justify such a finale. Just like “Basterds”‘s destruction of Hitler’s genocidal regime at the hands of a Jewish army, there is no question that no matter the extremity of the violence, this is the correct outcome.
Despite the unforgettable power of this moment, Tarantino has more on his mind than delivering pure, adrenaline-like satisfaction for the audience. Once the dust has settled, he diverts from the formula he created in “Basterds,” where the viewer exits on a revisionist high, thrilled that wrongs have been fictionally solved. There is no real moment in his WWII-era fantasy to ponder the poignancy of the moment, nor does the film encourage the viewer to really examine the gravity of what just happened. It’s a thrilling culmination of a mission, and everything works out well in the end. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” does not adhere to this structure, and if anyone walks out not appreciating the complexity of the tonal switch that Tarantino pulls off in the final minutes, I would argue they’ve missed the ultimate point.
Cliff is wheeled off to the hospital after he was stabbed in the chaos, leaving Rick alone on his driveway, taking a deep breath after what has to be one of the most eventful evenings of his life. Suddenly, a voice appears behind him – it’s Jay Sebring, Sharon Tate’s best friend. After an amusing recap of the night’s event, delivered by a rattled Rick to the awestruck Jay, a voice comes over the intercom: it’s Sharon. She invites Rick up for a drink, and from a distance, we watch as our protagonist meets his next-door neighbor for the very first time.
Here, we cut to the title card: Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.
Without this final scene, everything changes. Because, once and for all, this brief, beautiful moment cuts to the heart of what the movie is about: creating a contradiction that will produce a strange mix of emotions in every viewer. After messing around with history for a decade, Tarantino has finally come to the stark realization that changing history and searching for the happy ending is inherently something of a tragic idea. Indiewire’s Kate Erbland bluntly hits the nail on the head by citing that Tarantino’s entire history-altering narrative escapade “is complicated by the heartbreaking knowledge that none of it can change a damn thing.” Sharon Tate is still gone, and the final scene is as much a lament of her real-life death as it is a celebration of this fictional alteration. Played out in such a haunting fashion, the entire understated conclusion has the potential to bring tears to the eyes of every Hollywood aficionado.
But there is beauty in the ending as well. There’s no telling what’ll happen next in this universe, and I think Tarantino is comfortable with that, so long as the Mansons never rear their ugly head again. To return to K. Austin Collins’ review, he suggests that, when it comes to the film’s backdrop of cultural and social change, Tarantino expresses “fury at the fact that it all changed in the first place.” I’m not quite sure I agree – I think he hates the way that it all changed. Even in the Tarantino-verse, time will keep on passing, Dalton and Booth will still keep aging, Hollywood will keep changing – none of this is preventable. Tarantino wants to provide a snapshot of a particular moment, but even he knows that moment was never going to last forever.
In the context of the film itself, the ending boils down to the desire for one action: saving Sharon and her friends. Despite the desire from many viewers to suggest the film is doing something else, the finale is absolutely, solely, and unquestionably about stopping the murder of an innocent woman, who was a loving and caring soul if there ever was one in Hollywood. Sharon’s survival is the heart of it all, the presence that makes us smile and the sole reason that the final scene brings a tear to our eyes.
As Rick and Sharon meet for the first time, Tarantino keeps us at a distance, angling the camera so the composition is both quietly still and intensified by a strange, dynamic kind of energy. It’s tragic and haunting, but it’s charged with immense pathos as well. The satisfying conclusion of Rick and Cliff’s fictional journey meets this alternate timeline for Sharon and her friends, giving us the Hollywood ending that we all wish was true.
It’s history as it should have been. History at an off-center angle. History as it never could be.
An ending that could only happen in our fairy tale dreams.
Star Rating: 5 out of 5