Film Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Tarantino returns with a stylish new flick that’ll leave audiences divided…

Quentin Tarantino is one of the few directors working today who can grab moviegoers’ attention from his name alone, and with good reason. Known for long stretches of foul-mouthed dialogue, buckets of stylised gore and an unapologetic love for Spaghetti Westerns, every work of Tarantino’s since Reservoir Dogs has been a commercial and critical success, so it’s no surprise that there has been a fair bit of buzz surrounding the release of his ninth feature film.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood takes us back in time to 1969 Los Angeles to take a look at the lives of has-been actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and stunt-double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as they navigate a world they no longer understand their place in. With the Polanskis living next door and the Manson Family ranch just around the corner, Tarantino’s fictional characters are thrown right in the middle of a period in Hollywood history unlike any other, explored in a clever yet bizarre slice-of-life format.

This is definitely not a film that everybody will enjoy. At a runtime of nearly three hours, it ambles along very, very slowly with nearly no action or suspense until the final act. In contrast to a lot of today’s films, it feels as if almost all of the plot is comprised of talking, be it about characters’ mental states, the film industry or something seemingly inconsequential. It’s a mixed bag of different themes and storylines that don’t always line up how you’d expect – this is Tarantino doing things entirely his way, at the expense of leaving some of the audience behind.

Despite this, it would be unfair to describe any moment in the story as boring. The script is punchy, thought-provoking, and delivered impeccably by the all-star ensemble cast. There’s plenty of that traditional dry Tarantino humour too, guaranteed to get laughs out of viewers even in the most unexpected places.

Rick Dalton is one of DiCaprio’s best roles yet – he pours everything into each facet of the troubled character’s personality, bringing to life scenes that are super entertaining and genuinely moving where necessary. He’s also a master at drawing a line between the ‘real’ Rick Dalton and when Rick is in character, right down to his speech patterns and the most subtle facial expressions. 

Rick and Cliff’s brotherly bond feels so real despite the two actors having never met before production began, with their dynamic offering both touching and hilarious moments. It’s Cliff who really steals the show, however – Pitt gives us the most charming and badass stuntman you could imagine, with ever-so-slight glimpses of dark layers that are barely peeled back.

We also see Margot Robbie cement herself as the darling of a generation with her brilliant portrayal of the angelic Sharon Tate – she isn’t quite as focal to the film as Rick and Cliff, but her presence gives a lot of weight to the story as it draws closer to the night of August 8. Every scene she’s in is endearing and haunting in equal measures, paying off immensely in the conclusion.

Plenty of other huge stars appear in relatively minor roles, such as Al Pacino as Rick’s agent, Dakota Fanning as a Manson Family member, and Kurt Russell as a stunt coordinator and the narrator. Seeing so many familiar faces is one of the highlights of the film, and helps to immerse you deeper in this version of Hollywood thanks to all of the fantastic performances. 

With master cinematographer Robert Richardson behind the camera, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a visual treat – even the most mundane scenes are transformed into gorgeous feats of cinematography. On top of this, stock footage and authentic-looking classic films are used to great effect. 

Of course, a film set in the sixties would be nothing without a killer soundtrack, and it has just that. Some moments appear to be set up just to provide a backdrop for great music that ties in with the current mood, like Bring a Little Lovin’ while Cliff is going for a drive. The tracks used in the final act are particularly good choices, and overall the soundtrack is one of the best in recent memory.

While everyone can agree it’s executed well, the thing that’s really going to slice the audience in half is how Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ends. There’s this feeling throughout that everything is going to tie together and explode in a similar fashion to the director’s previous works, and while the finale is certainly brutal enough to earn the movie’s 18 rating, it will leave viewers surprised at best and disappointed at worst. It’s a ballsy move from Tarantino to conclude the film the way he did, and is extremely poignant and thought-provoking once you get it.

Ultimately, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is something special you really need to see for yourself and have your own take on. It’s an undeniably imperfect piece of cinema, but one that people are never going to stop talking about – and surely that must make it a success?

By Jamie Morris

Feature image credit: Sony Pictures

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