Warning: This review discusses the film’s ending.
Like every movie he’s made since Jackie Brown, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a sumptuous but slight effort from Quentin Tarantino. Long ago, around the time he decided to Kill Bill, the former video store clerk turned parasitic auteur, abandoned the discipline of tight narrative construction with sharp dialogue to match, and moved toward a stylised, purely cinematic form of filmmaking that privileged aesthetic and mood over story and character.
His ninth movie has a title and running time that recalls Sergio Leone. It’s a movie that re-introduces a modern audience to the spaghetti western in order to frame expectations about how much you can rely on atmosphere and tension building, then duly sets up a murderous climax between its principle characters and the film’s villains – that affront to Hollywood, the Manson family, with a mid-movie standoff thrown in for good measure.
The whole thing amounts to not much more than a celebration of Tinseltown artifice and its power to remake history in its own image; a film entirely reliant on a non-textual element, namely the audience’s familiarity with Hollywood history, to achieve its effects. Tarantino provides the upbeat and happy ending that audiences craved before New Hollywood arrived in the early ‘70’s and instituted a decade-long realist funk. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the flick that pretends Easy Rider’s “we blew it” never happened. Here, it’s glad confident morning once again.
Tarantinoids will note that this self-confident but reactionary filmmaker has moved from ripping off VHS plots to revisiting his own. An early scene has Leonardo DiCaprio’s washed up star of TV westerns (and other b-movie fodder), invisible to A-List directors like his neighbour Roman Polanski, flame-throwing Nazis in a tip to the ahistoric climax of Inglorious Basterds. It’s a setup that pays off both in-movie and metatexually – with a different set of fascists, Charles Manson’s brainwashed hippy cult, getting the same treatment when the film finally explodes after nearly two and half hours of careful edging.
What are we to make of this naked reworking of history? Is an alive and well Sharon Tate inviting DiCaprio’s Ray Dalton up for a drink and a second chance at the A-list, with her spared friends, after Manson’s acolytes fatefully choose to infiltrate her neighbour’s house and get an ultra-violent battering from stuntman with a shady (possibly homicidal) past, Brad Pitt, fairy tale or just plain glib? It’s the ending Tate would undoubtedly have preferred.
We’re invited to enjoy the double standard of these real world killers being dispatched in the most brutal and bloody way possible; their aggression and casual disdain for life vested on them; while feeling good about the ultimate expression of Hollywood fantasy – an industry’s belated revenge against the psychotics who killed one of its own and in doing so, stole its innocence.
Once Upon a Time… celebrates that innocence with some gentle comic undercutting. Long after the uncanny effect of Tate’s survival has subsided there’s the warm afterglow of having spent two and a half hours in the company of Dalton and Booth – the stuntman who very much lives up to his opening promise of carrying the load – in a 1969 Los Angeles in which television is challenging but has not yet beaten movies; a place still buzzing with great music and larger than life characters. In the Hollywood of old, says Tarantino, basking in nostalgia for what felt like a simpler time but wasn’t – optimism still reigned. Enough to bring the dead back to life and give a couple of Hollywood also-rans a second chance to shine. Redemption and wish fulfilment is what the movies used to be all about after all – so how could a film that celebrates that, end any other way?
This is the ninth in a promised series of ten movies from Tarantino – a self-conscious plagiarist who’s decided to add this arbitrary constraint in a bid to up the event status of each release and create his own Hollywood legend. Has he earned it? Many will say that despite not making a movie of cultural significance since 1994, Tarantino’s the last auteur in Hollywood that anyone cares about – a cineaste committed to the traditional craft of filmmaking and its values. But if this is true then we’re surely left to lament that such a man has never developed a signature style and voice of his own, or chosen to use his technical skills to make bold originals, in the vein of Paul Thomas Anderson. Is looking back a dereliction of duty in an era when the movies are in decline and television has supplanted them as the medium for original and thought provoking visual storytelling? Must everything now trade on our knowledge of something else? Perhaps the reason Tarantino doesn’t look to the future is that, thanks to filmmakers like him, there’s nothing there.