Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino, 2019

Rating: 5 out of 5

A Western is a type of film that often has a powerful mythical feeling like no other genre, with the greatest of them mixing striking imagery with strong characters that follow through redemptive arcs whilst exploring grand themes such as masculinity and social responsibility. Quentin Tarantino has famously stated that when he gets “close to a girl” he shows her the Howard Hawk’s masterpiece Rio Bravo, and well… he hopes she likes it.

Rio Bravo is a film that follows a straightforward plot, so simple in its formula that even Howard Hawks remade it twice with El Dorado and Rio Lobo. What elevates the film to a level where it is endlessly dissectible, immensely rewatchable and deceptively brisk for its three hour running time is the fascinating posse of characters - John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson and co. - that bring every frame to life.

Like his plots, the camerawork of Hawks films can also appear to be misleadingly simple. His favouring of two-shot framing allows for maximum interaction and hi-jinx between his characters. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood echoes Tarantino’s favourite film with a similar style for the first hour, introducing us to Rick Dalton (Leonardo Di Caprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).

Rick Dalton is a fading actor who has failed to successfully make the transition from television to film, largely down to his perception with audiences as pointed out by film producer Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino). Faced with the reality of his situation, Rick struggles to hold together his emotions throughout as Cliff attempts to console him.

The existential male crisis of a character fading away from their past glories is a tale explored throughout Tarantino’s work. These personal questions are posed within the backdrop of changing social landscapes where often ones moral code and self-pride is the only thing getting them through the moving times. In Pulp Fiction Marsellus Wallace tells Butch that “pride only hurts, it never helps”, a line Schwarz could have borrowed when explaining to Rick that he should move to Rome to make Spaghetti Westerns.

Rick is not the only character failing to fit in, with his partner Cliff proving even more problematic for the environment he inhabits. We are ambiguously provided with a scene that indicates that he may or may not have killed his wife, an incident that haunts him on set as producers swerve to avoid the negative vibe he brings with him. It is clear that Cliff’s days as a stuntman have effectively been over for a while. His role in the film is as Rick’s best friend and handyman, driving him around and carrying out his daily chores, every now and again chiming in with words of encouragement to try and kickstart his friends career.

Rick Dalton resent the world that is evolving without him, a world that seems happy to leave them him and carry on without him. Rick has a particularly strong resentment towards the “hippies” that he keeps encountering, preferring to direct his anger towards others and later drown in his sorrows rather than confront his own demons in any sort of purposeful way.

Like Dean Martin’s (who is incidentally shown on screen starring in The Wrecking Ball) troubled character in Rio Bravo, Rick is also an alcoholic who seems incapable of overcoming his problems and becoming a better man, although there are some glimpses that offer hope. In contrast to Rio Bravo, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s character arcs offer little in the way of redemption for our characters who remain ruggedly determined in their values in a time filled with chaos, with only their friendship bringing a reliable stability of sorts to their lives. Cliff is often the voice of reason and more liberal of the two characters. Despite the question marks over his past, he is accepting of his current situation and is happy to interact with "the hippies", take drugs, and spend time in his caravan with his dog.

In stark contrast to the negativity and struggles of Rick, his next door neighbour Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) is a glowing light, the personification of positivity that walks and dances around freely with a charming naivety. She has recently moved to Hollywood and is beginning to be recognised for bigger roles in major films alongside stars such as Dean Martin, with her husband Roman Polanski hot off the success of Rosemary’s Baby.

Those going into the film expecting a story about Sharon Tate and the Manson family may be disappointed. Whilst both feature heavily throughout, instead of using them as focal multi-dimensional characters, they are used in a fairytale-esque manner where there appearances feel like mythical figures, angels and devils.

The story of Sharon Tate runs parallel to the main story of Rick and Cliff, offering moments of positivity as she watches herself star on screen at a local cinema, and enjoys various parties with her friends such as Jay Sebring, interestingly cast as Emile Hirsch in his biggest role since his own personal problems that saw him serve 15 days in jail. The storytelling devices employed allow for the film to act as a commentary upon itself, examining the wider role and impact of cinema and media in general. The self-reflective nature of the film and in particular the final act raises questions about Tarantino’s own career and the responsibilities he might feel have been fostered upon him as a director often maligned for his use of violence.

Within the film there are many cinematic treats that I would rather not spoil, with a mixture of fictional and real life characters such as Bruce Lee and Steve McQueen. The film is littered with cinematic references that all film lovers will enjoy watching. Some may feel that certain scenes linger on for slightly too long, but for me I think back to this brilliant quote from Roger Ebert after watching Jackie Brown, “you savour every moment… those who say it is too long have developed cinematic attention deficit disorder. I wanted these characters to live, talk, deceive and scheme for hours and hours.”

In the middle of the film there is an extended Western sequence where Rick Dalton is appearing as a new television character opposite the excellent Timothy Olyphant (Deadwood) where he confronts the son of a ranch owner (Luke Perry) who has come to rescue his kidnapped daughter. This sequence takes place between two delightful scenes with the delightfully confident child actress Julia Butters who helps Rick confront his current acting crisis. As Rick reaches a possible turning point in his career, Cliff is drawn into the mysterious world of the Manson "family" cult as he travels out to Spahn movie ranch in one of the film's most suspenseful sequences.

Since its grand premiere at this year’s Cannes film festival, Tarantino has been adamant that viewers must not reveal any details about the film’s ending, and that's a request I will happy respect in order to maximise your enjoyment for the film have you not seen it. It is not a spoiler to say that it is absolutely glorious - pure Tarantino cinematic magic. Filled with hilarity, depravity and feelings of bittersweet melancholy in all the right places. All the Tarantino trappings we have grown so used to are there as usual, from laugh out loud dialogue to a soundtrack that you will struggle to get out of your head.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a film that lives up perfectly to its dream like title, a film created with love and filled with an admiration for a time gone by, for the magic that was lost in 1969. It is a film unapologetic in its machismo and bravado, but constructed in a way that feels self-aware, sincere and non-exploitative. Tarantino knows how to create exhilarating experiences like few other modern mainstream directors, and his latest film is certainly no exception. Here's to hoping that number ten wont be his last. 

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Written by Daniel Metcalf

Daniel Metcalf