“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is everything you could ask for from writer-director Quentin Tarantino. It’s his 9th film, and it showcases a maturity in his filmmaking vision that’s one for the cinematic history books. Here is the work of a master at the top of his craft, showcasing his talent in the pure art of making movies.
Provocative and imperfect, the film meanders like a classic Western through the rocky evolution of late-Sixties Hollywood. Everything works here: the direction, the wardrobe, the soundtrack, the editing, the cinematography, the performances. If there’s a weak link, it’s the rambling, thin story — but even it eventually finds redemption.
The movie isn’t flawless, but it’s a work that showcases Tarantino’s brilliance. From the dialogue (including a particularly beautifully written piece of voice over narration about the end of a friendship on an international flight) to the overall vision (the driving scenes through neon-signed streets showcase the faded glory of Hollywood with a punch of poignant nostalgia).
Everything is overshadowed by the knockout performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, two men in what likely is the role of a lifetime for both. How fortunate we are to live during a time when DiCaprio walks the Earth. It’s staggering how talented he is, and his performance here is so phenomenal that it reached deep into my bones until it actually made me cry in disbelief from the beauty of his skill.
Pitt takes his role as aging stuntman Cliff Booth and turns it into an iconic character in the Tarantino universe. His movie star chemistry suits the film, and he and DiCaprio, as a now B-list actor Rick Dalton, feel like old friends who each are dealing with the realization that their glory days are nearing the end. The two men face what it’s like to come to terms with the death of a career in similar yet different ways, and their relationship is the real heart of the film.
“It’s official old buddy,” Rick says to Cliff. “I’m a has-been.”
Rick takes to the bottle and begrudgingly accepts roles on television shows and in Italian Spaghetti Western films. Cliff becomes intrigued with the young hippies he sees around town, decides to pick up a young hitchhiker (Margaret Qualley), and gives her a ride to what turns out to be the abandoned movie set home base of the Manson Family.
The friendship between the two men may provide the bulk of the story, but the film eventually intersects with the horrific events of August 8, 1969, where a group of Charles Manson’s followers went on a killing spree and murdered five people, including then-pregnant actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). It’s a fantasy tale based on a multiple murder, and that aspect of the film may feel tasteless to some. But Tarantino handles it in a way that all makes sense, and really drives home the mature themes of his story.
The controversy about the lack of screen time for the female lead is ridiculous, and should be stopped right now. The movie isn’t about Tate or her sad fate, but her grisly murder sets the stage for the culmination of Tarantino’s story. There’s nothing in this film (aside from the “honey” and “baby” comments from men that were considered appropriate for the period) that I would condemn as being misogynistic. Robbie’s supporting role embodies the sunshine, innocence, and blind hope of a rising starlet in Hollywood, and the sadness of her performance makes it stand out, even if only for a few brief moments in the film.
In true Tarantino fashion, the film is obsessively detailed, right down to the toys in Cliff’s trailer to the songs playing on the radio. Diehard fans of the director will find well-placed Easter eggs all over the place, so pay close attention.
Overall, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” shows a more restrained side of the famous filmmaker, but audiences can expect his signature violence and brutally insightful dialogue throughout. This is not only one of the best movies of the year, it’s one of the finest of his career.