This post is more like a general review. I don’t technically own this film yet, but I definitely will. When that happens, I like to write my initial thoughts as a review and re-visit the film after I’ve bought it to give it my usual treatment. The biggest difference is that I won’t have a Random Thoughts section since I wasn’t able to write those down as I watched (which is what I do for regular posts on this site). I will still be writing this review with SPOILERS, however, because I don’t feel like tip-toeing around the points I want to make about the film.
Quentin Tarantino’s work has always been tied to other films, so it makes sense that he would finally make a film overtly about Hollywood. Specifically, he made a film about the Hollywood he loved and wished had never changed. As usual, he masterfully recreated an era and the films and TV shows from said era in such a way that the film is enjoyable on the surface alone.
I wasn’t alive during the time period represented in Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood, so I have no feelings of nostalgia for most of the things presented here. But Tarantino’s obsessive love for the time period comes across so strongly that I ended up wishing I had experienced it. By the end of the film, I was just like Tarantino: I wanted this world to keep going and never change.
Which brings me to the “twist” ending that some people have had issues with (I’ve avoided most press about the film because I like to keep my thoughts untainted, but I have seen article titles about the ending, and I’ve seen a few theories that want to explain away the ending as Cliff’s acid hallucination [which I completely disagree with]). By having Cliff and Rick (and Brandy!) take out the would-be murderers, Tarantino did two things. First, after building up to the murder we all knew was coming, he found a way to surprise us by literally changing history. Second, and more importantly in my opinion, he made this film the fairy tale its title suggested it was in the first place.
The focus on Sharon Tate throughout the film wasn’t meant to create foreboding for her eventual murder that we all knew was coming. It was meant to show the pure joy Tate had as a successful actress in Hollywood. This is what Rick was wanting the entire film. He wanted to get through that gate to become connected to Tate so his career could become what he always wanted it to be.
Taking out the Manson cult members at the end was a bit of gleeful wish fulfillment, much like Tarantino did in Inglourious Basterds by killing Hitler. In both films, I found myself laughing and enjoying myself more than any other time I can remember at the movies. It’s easy to cheer for the grisly demise of such people, and I love how Tarantino uses grotesque violence for humor rather than simple shock and disgust.
While both endings represent wish fulfillment for historical events, Hollywood is deeper than that because Tarantino has such affection for the time period in Hollywood that was brought to an end (in large part because of the Manson murders). With Basterds, I think killing Hitler was more about being able to give the team a win at the end. That’s fine, but I think Hollywood’s ending is more satisfying thematically.
The ending is only successful because Tarantino spent so much time setting up the world before that moment. He recreated a Hollywood I want to hang out in, and, most importantly, he created characters I want to hang out with. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt are so great together that I wish the scene of them hanging out watching TV together went on twice as long. They come across as genuine friends. My only complaint about the film is that they spend too much time apart during it. But each character’s journey is entertaining enough that you don’t notice it that much.
DiCaprio has found in Tarantino another director that brings out the best in him. DiCaprio has a lot to do here, and he nails it. There’s the stuttering insecure Rick, there’s the actor Rick who has to put on a public face of confidence, and there are all of the characters he portrays. The most notable character was the heavy in an episode of Lancer, which is one my favorite sequences in the film. The filmmaking alone in that sequence is great as Tarantino effortlessly switches back and forth between the actual show and the mistakes Rick makes that stop the scene. He draws you into the scene so much that you start to forget that you’re not watching an actual western. But it’s DiCaprio’s performance both as a successful actor and as an insecure actor that make it special. The two show-stopping moments for me are Rick’s trailer freak out and his nailing of the kidnapping scene.
Pitt plays a simpler character but that doesn’t mean his scenes or performance are lacking. Cliff the more tragic of the two, and it’s arguable that the ending saves his way of life more than Rick’s. Pitt portrays Cliff as fearless and carefree, but there’s a hint of melancholy to the performance that makes it one of Pitt’s most subtle and enjoyable performances of his career.
There are an embarrassing amount of amazingly cast side characters that I’ll wait to write about when I can re-visit the film at home. But I did want to comment on Margot Robbie’s performance as Sharon Tate. Her lack of lines is a criticism that Tarantino has faced, and I can see the argument. Her character is probably too silent, but I believe it’s because Tarantino was using her as the embodiment of what Rick wanted, both as a career and in life. Obviously he wanted to get close to Polanski to possibly work with him and elevate his career. But more importantly he wanted to be like Tate when she watches herself in the theater. He wanted to entertain people and be loved. And it’s a credit to both Tarantino’s script and Robbie’s performance that she didn’t need many lines to convey this. When Tarantino could be bothered to take the camera off of her feet, you could see all the hope and happiness to make this point in Robbie’s face. I can understand why people think her lack of lines and screentime is problematic, but I also don’t think the movie is about her at all. She simply represents a Hollywood that both Tarantino and Rick want, and you don’t necessarily need a lot of lines to get that point across.
The performances and amazing moments (like the also controversial Bruce Lee scene) are enough to make this movie one of my favorites of the year, but it’s the foreboding feeling throughout the film that cements it as my number one film (there are a lot of movies still to come out, of course, but I feel confident that this movie will stay in my top three at least). The foreboding feeling is mainly the Manson murders that the audience is thinking of every time we see Tate on screen. But the foreboding isn’t just about the terrible murders that were going to happen in reality; it was also about the end of an era. The film I’m most reminded of in this regard is Inherent Vice (so much so that I immediately re-watched it and will write about it next). That divisive film is one of my favorites from Paul Thomas Anderson because the whole film is about the end of the carefree ‘60s and the beginning of the paranoia of the ‘70s that still persists to this day. It was when we stopped living in the moment and started living in fear (“we” culturally speaking since I didn’t actually experience this cultural shift). The movie is largely a comedy but with this feeling of dread throughout that I found fascinating. This is why I love Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood. It’s one of the funniest movies in recent memory, but it also says something about what happened to our culture in this time period without ever actually having to say anything.
Because of Tarantino’s set up for the first two-plus hours, when we finally reach the boiling point and the violent climax occurs, the true point of the movie is clear: Tarantino, a man who has built his career paying homage to the films and TV shows he loves, longs for this time period and wants it to last forever. And as a filmmaker, he can change history in the form of this fairy tale, and imagine what could have been.