Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★½

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a mature, melancholic marvel that finds writer-director Quentin Tarantino at his most restrained and resonant with a hilarious and heartbreaking ode to a tremendously influential and irresistible era that twists and transforms in structure, genre, and focus throughout its lengthy (yet entirely earned) 161 minute runtime before eventually concluding with a deserved, definitive fairy-tale farewell to the golden age of the film industry.

At a writing workshop I attended in the past, I learned of the Welsh word hiraeth. It’s a word for which there is no direct English translation, and for this reason it has been the source of my endless fascination. It’s bewildering to see how other cultures and languages can contain words that authentically and wholly describe complex human emotions that us English speakers are seemingly only capable of clunkily articulating. In its simplest form, hiraeth represents the concept of longing for home; however, it’s full definition is relayed as a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was - the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the cinematic illustration of hiraeth.

From the leisurely long takes of Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth driving down the winding roads of Los Angeles to the wistful and whimsical wonder evoked by Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate’s flights of fancy, Quentin Tarantino’s camera lingers on every last drop of nostalgia and reminiscence present in the recreation of 1969 Hollywood that he has so meticulously cultivated, firmly placing audiences in his specific memory of this classic era. However, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood wisely refuses to become a simple exercise in nostalgic wish fulfillment. Tarantino is more than aware of the fact that his view of this time period is skewed by his own inescapable personal connection to the material, and while he does continually exalt the virtues of this age in film history, he removes his rose colored glasses long enough to retrospectively analyze the burgeoning ugly underbelly of late 1960s society and relay a surprisingly sophisticated commentary against the forces that destroyed this idyllic Eden of the entertainment industry.

Just as hiraeth states, it’s clear that Tarantino wishes with all his might to return to the cinematic utopia of his childhood, but as he’s grown, we can also notice how he has come to understand that his version of the immortal “golden age of Hollywood” may have never truly existed in the first place, with sinister forces always inevitably plotting for its downfall at all times.

In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, there are a variety of forces at work that begin to chip away at the initially indestructible foundation of this golden era. Evolving audience tastes always serve a purpose in altering the trajectory of the film industry, and aging is a consistent death knell to even the mightiest of stars, something the older Rick Dalton discovers all too well (and this is all without even considering the spreading influence of Charles Manson’s anarchist nihilism plaguing society at the time). Tarantino’s textured, intricate screenplay is full of all the witty barbs and banter you expect from his devilish dialogue all the while simultaneously delivering harsh truths and thoughtful ruminations on the feelings of inadequacy and irrelevancy that lost souls (especially lost artistic souls) come to experience as tides change and you shift from one phase of life to another.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is not a film that Tarantino could’ve made at any other point in the career. Truly, this story feels like the culmination of his body of work as an auteur who has felt plentiful trials and tribulations over the course of almost three decades in the industry. Thus far, it seems that Tarantino has had three distinct “phases” in his filmography. In the 90s, he primarily focused on his unique brand of dialogue-driven crime thrillers (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown). In the early 2000s, he dabbled in grungy, grindehouse pulp (Kill Bill: Volume 1, Kill Bill: Volume 2, Death Proof). And from 2009-2015, he released a thematic trilogy of sorts with three tense, incendiary actioners rooted in social commentary (Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight). Once Upon a Time in Hollywood doesn’t fit neatly in any of these categories, and although it takes a bit of inspiration from each, it manages to carve out its own novel spot alongside these other films, standing, if not necessarily superior, certainly on another level of intellectual stimulation. In a way, this would be an extremely fitting swan song for the iconic film figure, had he not already announced that he still has one project left in him.

While this creates a film that is far less showy and far more ambling and esoteric than his typical output, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood never shorts audiences on sheer classic entertainment value, and this is primarily due to the abundance of riches provided by its colossally captivating cast.

Leonardo DiCaprio is one of the most talented and repeatedly ravishing actors to ever grace the silver screen. That much is known. There is no reason to debate that fact. With such massive acclaim and such a deep bench of iconic roles that have made their mark on pop culture forever, I truly can’t think of a better actor to play the role of the fading superstar, Rick Dalton. Every major celebrity knows you can’t stay on top forever, and those nagging fears always find a way to wriggle their way into your brain and nestle into their own special home in your subconscious. The idea of “what comes next?” is frightening and formidable for any artist reaching the end of their run, especially when they don’t feel like they want to pursue any other path in life or if they don’t think they’re even physically capable of any other avenue. Many of Rick’s fears coincide with Tarantino’s. First, it’s obvious that Rick’s fright of the future mirrors Tarantino’s hesitance to embrace life after the “golden age of Hollywood” has died and the uncertainty that follows. Second, as Tarantino himself reaches the end of his career, what more will there be for him when he’s not creating consistent art? Is there any other role he can take on in life?

DiCaprio manages to impeccably balance the inherent campy self-deprecation of the role and the legitimate dread and dismay experienced by Dalton with ease. In a showstopping sequence where Rick converses with an 8 year old method child actress on a break, he gracefully skates around any potential tonal mishap like an Olympic figure skater as he skips from humor to pathos and back and forth all in the course of one simple long-take interaction. Rick’s grief shows itself in many different forms, and no moment of introspection feels false of manufactured by any means. Even later beats that showcase Leo acting as Rick acting within a TV western could’ve come across as overly indulgent or inauthentic, but feel truly genuine to the intense art of filmmaking thanks to Leo’s commitment.

As great as DiCaprio is, it may be Brad Pitt who single-handedly walks away with the film as his gruff and good-looking stunt double, Cliff Booth, who carries himself with a jovial, yet no-nonsense attitude and always somehow has the best word (or punch) to get out of any difficult situation. Pitt gets the most memorable lines as well, delivering them with a dry, delightful wit and just oozing classic Hollywood star charisma with every glance and grin. His friendship and relentless dedication to Rick is the heart and soul of the film, and as their own relationship begins to reach its expiration date due to differing life demands, it’s another clear, poignant, and unfortunately stark reminder of the twists and turns we navigate each and every day in life.

And now on to the lovely Ms. Margot Robbie. Much has been said and debated about her role in the film, but let me make one thing clear first. 

This isn’t the “Manson murders” movie. It’s the Sharon Tate show, through and through. If you come looking for some gritty crime thriller that highlights the complex intricacies of Charlie’s infamous cult, you’re bound to leave disappointed. Quentin Tarantino isn’t interested in making his movie about that area of historical horseshit. With Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino reclaims this story from those reprobates and reframes the narrative around Tate and what she represented in the greater context of society and the world of film at the time. No longer is she simply a victim or footnote in the tragic timeline of Charlie Manson. Tarantino certainly keeps the cult on the peripheral edges of the film at all times in order to induce suspense and tension when necessary, but their actions solely serve as a backdrop for the overall plot, never asserting dominance by driving the narrative forward.

With all that being said, Robbie is indeed given little dialogue and sparse character development as Tate, in spite of the large focus on her role in the greater realm of the film as a whole. Nevertheless, dialogue is merely one tool in an actor’s repertoire, and an actress as gifted as Robbie has plenty more skills to exploit. Her natural beauty is already a fit for the effervescent Tate (boy, does she know how to vogue), but Robbie never tones Sharon down to a bland, bouncy, party girl in any respect. Tate is full of infectious energy in all of her exploits, constantly dancing or simply grooving to the glorious tunes of the late 1960s, and this unabashed joy for life is something truly beautiful to behold. For once, we are allowed to see Tate as more than a specter in a textbook. Here, Robbie’s Tate has a bold, beating heart, and she brings a sense of electric euphoria to every single one of her scenes, enlivening the entire atmosphere.

Robbie’s standout scene occurs midway through the picture as Tate attends a showing of The Wrecking Crew and gauges audience interest around her. Robbie’s shy initial hesitance shows a new dimension to Tate’s well documented larger than life celebrity status, and her later childlike giddiness at the crowd’s delight allows Robbie the opportunity to show Tate’s sincere love for her craft and the happiness it brought those around her.

Every single other aspect of the production fires on all cylinders. The costume and set design work in tandem to fully realize the 1969 Hollywood aesthetic that lives in Tarantino’s psyche, Robert Richardson’s cinematography gives the film a grimy edge while also managing to keep major events in a warm glow for the most part to match the nostalgic aura, and Fred Raskin’s editing gives this behemoth of a film time to breathe but rarely allows any set scene to overstay its welcome. Special acting attention must also be paid to Margaret Qualley (who hops back and forth between alluring “hippie girl” optimism and dangerous adherence to cult hive-mind mentality with precision), Julia Butters (who holds her own with a wise-beyond-her-years innocence in a complicated conversation with Leo’s Rick Dalton), and Austin Butler (who plays a pivotal role in the climax with unflinching ferocity and excites me FAR more than I could’ve ever imagined for his upcoming Elvis portrayal). 

And finally, onto that corker of an ending.

I can’t and won’t say much about it, and I truly advise everyone to watch it unfold themselves, wholly unspoiled, letting Tarantino’s storytelling unexpectedly wash over you the exact way he intended. For this viewer, the thrilling adrenaline rush provided by the simmering suspense of the climax was incredibly effective, and Tarantino did the seemingly impossible in paying tasteful homage to tragic events while delivering his own crowdpleasing and signature take on history by contorting it into something far grander in order to better match his own thematic arcs.

The final images achieve a rare, transcendent sort of cinematic poetry, and I’m almost certain that I’ll be contemplating the meaning behind those last shots for the next few weeks, if not months. This conclusion is quite unlike anything Tarantino has ever put to film before, and it’s a touching, towering endnote for the melancholic fairy tale he’s crafted.

As opposed to being yet another quick-paced, rapid-fire quip machine, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood finds Tarantino in a much more openhearted and vulnerable position, as he dares to take the most daring leap of his career thus far and allow us the opportunity to see his soul in its purest cinematic form. While the film’s length and historical alterations may not register to the highest of their abilities with every viewer, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is nevertheless a masterful tribute to a bygone era and a mesmerizing march through time worth taking.

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