Just looking at the roster for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, expectations are understandably high. A Quentin Tarantino-directed film that stars Leonardo DiCaprio as aging movie star Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt as Dalton’s stunt double, Cliff Booth. Once Upon a Time is a tender love letter to the tug of war between the aging glamour of 1950s/early 1960s Hollywood and the bright-eyed rough-around-the-edges optimism of the 1960s. Overall, the film is beautifully shot with many genius editing choices (except for all the feet shots, seriously what was up with that?).
Tarantino’s latest film shines because of his use of simple yet effective juxtaposition. The midlife crisis story of Rick and Cliff are complemented by the rise of two young female movie stars, Sharon Tate (exquisitely played by Margot Robbie) and Rick’s child co-star in his last Western before going to Italy. By placing these two narratives side by side, Tarantino helps expand the themes of age, growth, and change. Leonardo DiCaprio gives an awe-inspiring performance that is wrought with anguish, tension, desperation, and wit. Actors playing actors is always fun to watch; it’s self-indulgent for the actors and a treat for the fans. In Once Upon a Time, DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton is struggling to find his footing as the film business is starting to slowly remove him from leading man status before he’s ready to go. Dalton is an alcoholic that has a comically disastrous personal life but somehow pulls it together to salvage what’s left of his acting career. Booth, on the other hand, is a characteristically quiet and deceptively sinister stunt man whose career is dependent on Dalton. Pitt and DiCaprio have impeccable chemistry; the stoic silence of Pitt’s character is beautifully offset by the brash loudness of DiCaprio’s character. Both leading men give excellent performances in what is essentially a tribute to the Hollywood that raised them.
In fact, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is actually so tender and sweet that for the first two acts, it doesn’t really feel like a Tarantino flick. The director’s trademark cartoonish gaze is omnipresent but the gut-wrenching gore that we’ve grown to love (for better or for worse) doesn’t appear until that spectacular ending. Tarantino employs a narrative voiceover to notify us of the impending violence in the coming scenes. With classics like Inglorious Basterds, Kill Bill, and The Hateful Eight, one of Tarantino’s trademarks is his penchant for violence on screen. By withholding that violence, Tarantino questions the ethics of on-screen violence and challenges our need to see said violence by using the Manson murders as a parallel. When the news first broke that Sharon Tate would be featured in this film, there was immediate speculation about how Tarantino would handle Tate’s murder at the hands of the Manson cult followers. That’s where the title comes in. “Once upon a time” immediately evokes thoughts of fairy tales, and that’s exactly what this movie is. It’s a fairy tale. I’ll refrain from spoiling too much, but the ending of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood both allows for a new happy ending for Sharon Tate and the changing of the guard in Hollywood. Margot Robbie gives a beautiful performance as Sharon Tate; she expertly captures the actress’ aura of effervescence without many spoken lines.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is nothing short of genius. This is a culmination of decades of innovative work. This film is unsettling, inspiring, confusing, comic, terrifying, gorgeous, and melancholy all at once. Once Upon a Time is an overwhelming experience that is the clear frontrunner for Oscars glory. DiCaprio (Best Actor) and Pitt (Best Supporting Actor) are clear picks, and either Margot Robbie or Margaret Qualley could be recognized in the Best Supporting Actress category. Nominations for Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Production Design are also likely. Tarantino, as controversial as he is, is a visionary, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is one of his greatest creations yet.