Few directors touch the third rail more than Quentin Tarantino. The famed director/screenwriter has long gained praise for his pop culture-infused stories of violence and death. In some cases, he has co-opted Black and Asian culture to tell these tales. In others, he has created strong characters that few other directors would dare bring to the screen. His story as a young theater-goer and cinephile built a mythos around his career. For some, Tarantino is a hero who wishes to save the cinema. To others, his villainy and penchant for violence knows no bounds.
In the case of Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, separating the director from the film is folly. Instead, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood represents a singular vision that no other director could bring to life. Combining his love of Westerns, 1950’s television, and the Golden age of Hollywood, Tarantino brings to life a world on the brink of change. At the same time, Tarantino delivers a wildly enjoyable ride with movie star turns that make it one of the most instantly enjoyable films of his career.
Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood follows Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an actor whose pursuit of film glory cost him a prime time TV series. Dalton feels washed up, but his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) does his best to keep him active. Dalton literally lives in the shadow of the Polanski and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) residence, who lives next door to the actor. As Dalton continues his descent in the movie business, his neighbors continue to rise in popularity. Not everything in Hollywood continues to move in a positive direction, as a group of hippies on Spahn Ranch threaten to disrupt this pristine world.
For the first time in his career, Tarantino wrestles with his place as an established filmmaker in Hollywood. His direction and screenplays were once cutting edge and innovative. In the twenty-five years since Pulp Fiction, talented filmmakers influenced by his work have become the new generation. While his movies were once among the most diverse and progressive in Hollywood, he has been surpassed by this new generation, and now feels slightly conservative in his creation. That’s not to say Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood feels boring or even right-leaning in its approach. To the contrary, Tarantino’s revelation comes more in the way the world has progressed rather than his own growing conservatism.
This feeling bears itself out in the story, as the once hip actor and stuntmen feel pushed to the side for the newer stars. While Pitt’s Booth accepts his fate, DiCaprio’s Dalton struggles to hold onto relevance. The new hippies emerging across Hollywood further showcase their role as elder statesmen of the city. The drugs and politics they preach further the divide between the two sides. Tarantino’s heart seems to be trapped in this place, and openly questions how a few individuals take their ideologies so far that it can end an era.
As Tarantino wrestles with the fallout of the 1960s and how it applies to our world today, he allows his stars to shine as brightly as ever. Pitt steals the show, showcasing his true strength as a dynamic actor even when he is at his most laid back. Twenty-six years after True Romance helped make Pitt a star, he showcases the same penchant for playing a Wanderer. Funny, charismatic, and sexy as he’s ever been, Pitt dominates the screen. Look for Pitt to get a lot of traction in the awards conversation as the year goes on.
Meanwhile, DiCaprio delivers one of his best performances of his career. For the actor to follow up his Oscar-winning performance with one that is emotional, vulnerable, and part self-parody is rather astounding. DiCaprio stuns as he hits some his highest levels of intensity. He’s also at his most relatable. He also gets to show off his comedy chops, reaching highs he’s only touched in The Wolf of Wall Street. It’s an interesting career choice, but with DiCaprio crushing the role, he makes the choice worth it.
There are plenty of arguments around Margot Robbie in the film, and most have some validity. Tarantino gives her a role on the periphery of this story, even though she plays Sharon Tate. His goal seems to be one of reclamation. How well he accomplishes this goal is another story. She gets few speaking lines, but we also see a Sharon Tate full of life. We even get to watch Robbie watching The Wrecking Crew with the real Tate in it. We see a budding actress full of life, and her kindness is contagious. Everyone around her is fascinated with her, and there’s a real chance that she was slated to become one of the biggest actresses of her generation. Rather than surround her in violence, to which the actress has become linked, Tarantino chooses to divert that violence. While he cannot literally save Sharon Tate from the fate that befell her, he turns her into a genuine beam of life. It might be one of the best things that Tarantino has ever done in his time as a director.
The real star of the film remains the city of Hollywood. Thanks to production designer Barabara Ling and costume designer Arianne Phillips bring the world to life. It’s not just the city, Spahn Ranch and the movies they nail, but the general atmosphere of the world. As the screenplay allows its characters to lazy about the city and creates a hangout mood, the atmosphere wraps you up as a viewer. The immersive nature Hollywood separates it from other Tarantino features and makes you want to go back for seconds (and thirds).
Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood might be Tarantino’s least Tarantino film and it might result in the most Academy love he’s ever received. While Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs will always be the films that launched a young upstart, Hollywood might be his most mature film to date. A combination of craft and maturity makes this one the great accomplishments of his career.