Beesh’s review published on Letterboxd:
Tarantino’s Most Significant Work Yet
AKA: Dirty Fuckin’ Hippies - A Heartwarming Tale of Two Men and a Dog
As always, please forgive the long, irrelevant word-vomit and run-on sentences. To those who stick around, you are the reason I ramble.
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Once Upon A Time In Hollywood will no doubt be declared by some as the Hail Caesar! of Tarantino’s career if only for the notorious director’s gushing love letter to a bygone era of Hollywood filmmaking (and seemingly not much else), but the film is actually a warm display of delayed gratification, as it righteously delivers on not just the long awaited shock and violence that QT fans have come to adore, but a surprisingly intimate reflection on life through cinema, making this Quentin’s most personal, poignant and perhaps most well produced film to date.
Comparisons will be quick to call Hollywood one of Tarantino’s bottom tier films, and on the surface understandably so. Not only is the run time an enduring 161 long minutes, but the film is also rather self righteous of the film industry and of past Hollywood absorbed through the lens of a six-year-old Quentin Tarantino; a golden era of cowboy heroes on television when the world was still innocent and black & white; a time just before a radical darkness violently shook Hollywood and shifted the tone of cinema all across America. The pitch may sound like a humdrum history lesson, but as we’ve learned, facts told by Tarantino are nothing more than pulp fiction.
Oh yeah, we’re coming full circle, bitches.
Once is a film signed and sealed for film lovers, and every frame of this movie is dripping old, classic Hollywood. Just look at the cold open - a black & white television screen; a series of heroic shots featuring Bounty Law’s cowboy, TV star Rick Dalton (Leo DiCaprio) as he flawlessly shoots bad guys and rides away on a horse - it’s the very fabricated portrayal of Western cinema that Tarantino grew up on; an escapist world romanticized by an era of half a century ago - only to be followed up by a sobering interview of Dalton and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who humbly agrees that he’s here to “carry the load” of his leading man; a statement that goes beyond volumes once the story of their bromance unfolds. The two friends sit and wallow as they approach a new age; the dawn of the end of their acting careers. Yes, it’s a setup for two fictional characters at the end of their road, but it’s also a self aware statement on the inevitable sun beginning to set on Tarantino’s career (this being nine out of a proposed ten films).
It’s telling that the opening credits of Hollywood are initially quietly staged to a giant toothy grin on Dalton’s face splattered onto a cartoonishly large billboard outside the movie star’s fancy L.A. home - Tarantino’s classic yellow font present, but it’s not until the camera pulls back to reveal the interior shot of our two protagonists cooly sliding into the seats of a vintage car to rev up the engine before we hear the tunes of Roy Head’s “Treat Her Right,” a potential foreshadow to Tarantino’s treatment of Sharon Tate (or perhaps just a groovy needle drop to kick off the times).
Tarantino’s introduction sets a somber stage for a very detail-orientated late 1960s Hollywood; not just the neighborhood of where these characters live, but the glitz and glam of the bygone era they once owned. The amount of 60s pop culture references alone is genuinely overwhelming, from songs to television shows and every ad in between, but the pulp director uses them to his advantage immersing his audience in a believable time warp.
With Kurt Russel crudely interjecting narration into the film, Tarantino establishes a giant “fuck you” to exposition just as quick as he is to establish the stark differences between the very meek, timid and insecure Dalton against the macho, mysterious stunt man Cliff Booth.
Dalton is introduced by means of almost-non-fictional film producer Marvin “not Schwartz” Schwarzs (Al Pacino) as a heroic face of violent American cinema, notoriously during a clear Inglourious callback as he hilariously fries nazi bastards with a blowtorch in a WWII propaganda film; the blowtorch even having brief and comical backstory, which Tarantino doesn’t include by accident.
On the one hand, living in wealth and success, Dalton literally weeps (very comically) for his uncertain future; his career going from failed TV star to a potential unknown leading movie man of Spaghetti westerns; those of the era of Sergio Leone, which would pave the way for violent 70s exploitation B-movies, that of which would inspire the very pallet for Quentin’s entire filmmaking career.
On the other hand, Booth lives far off in a remote trailer home, wallpapered by dreamy Hollywood posters and six-packs of beer; his only companion a militantly trained pit bull named Brandy. Dalton and Booth are radically different men yet share an intimate bond, one described by Russel as “more than a brother but less than a wife,” allowing the audience to be immersed in perhaps the most believably authentic male duo relationship in a Tarantino flick since Jules and Vince Vega.
While fictional Hollywood is underway, the historical Sharon Tate is breezily introduced to the screen, played to blissfully angelic perfection by the stunning Margot Robbie; a blonde Barbie doll basking in the glory days of 60s Hollywood driving around with hot-shot director Roman Polanski and pals at the Playboy mansion. Tate is played like a ghost, existing to merely fulfill the fantasies of a more innocent time, and Robbie’s performance carries the late actress’ legacy as an ode to Tate’s life, rather than an unfortunate reminder of her being a victim of terrible death.
Upon first glance, Hollywood slows things down, taking its sweet time with our lead characters in the authentic world of 1969 that they live in. Not since Jackie Brown has Tarantino basked in his characters with such utter fascination, chipping away with a range of details from Dalton’s slight stammer to Booth’s melancholy behind his vintage aviators.
These are characters brilliantly self realized on the pages, but brought to life with performances to the caliber of seasoned folks like Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt who share a chemistry that echoes the likes of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. There’s a poetry to the insecure nature of leading man Dalton against the mysterious and loyal Booth, the two complementing each other where one could not exist without the other. The fact that DiCaprio technically happens to be the star of the film while Pitt arguably steals the spotlight only makes their fictional actor-stuntman relationship that much more ironic.
Tarantino harks back to his traditional “buddy comedy” writing, quick to make Dalton and Booth not just fleshed out but lovable (and very believable) characters, albeit their purpose seeming initially pointless.
For example, the entire bit where Booth is fantasizing about commandeering a film set he’s not supposed to be on, where he gets in a very comical rough-and-tumble with an overly cocky Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) at the expense of Stuntman Randy and his nagging wife Janet (played respectively by QT veterans Kurt Russel and Zoë Bell) may exist only as a reminder that this is also Quentin’s all around funniest film since Jackie Brown, but it’s also the only scene that delves into the theory that Booth killed his wife, making him that much more of a hostile character. It’s only when the audience realizes the film never actually answers whether or not he committed said murder that leaves Booth as a character to be a complete enigma.
On the stagey side of things, Tarantino gets inside Dalton’s head by prefacing his acting scenes with long dialogues about old cowboys as metaphors against a prestigious eight-year-old girl; an apprehensive conversation with James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant) in regards to losing the lead role of The Great Escape to Steve McQueen (in a brilliant green-screen DiCaprio stand-in), only to have Dalton flub his lines, ending with a bit where he’s self loathing in his trailer, which results in not just one of the funniest scenes of Tarantino’s career, but the confidence to have Dalton eventually nail his lines with Wayne Maunder (Luke Perry - pour one out for Perry).
Of course this is all just extensive Hollywood wanking, if only to establish how personally (and emotionally) Dalton takes his career, but it’s also a personal glimpse into Quentin’s aspirations as well as the life of an overdramatic actor, not to mention a subtle reminder that DiCaprio is just spectacular as fuck at acting like a subpar actor.
Juxtaposed with all the Hollywood throbbing is the anti-establishment movement of the 60s “dirty fuckin hippies” as they’re constantly referred to, represented by the teens and tweens of Charles Manson’s “family” cult singing eerie songs Manson actually wrote, as they dumpster dive past giant murals of heroic gunslingers and flipping off cop cars, shouting “fucking pigs” at them. Sure Tarantino seems to be setting up a very real people of apparent peace, but he’s actually deep frying his audience in the inevitable clash of Hollywood and horror.
By the time Booth finally gives into hitchchiker “Pussycat” (Margaret Qualley) as they head to Spahn Movie Ranch, we believe his answer will probably be a yes to her “do you want me to suck your cock while you drive,” only to have him instead question her age and moralize his being too old for for her jailbait poontang; this being an example of famous Tarantino dialogue in its appearance of being irrelevant, while teasing the blend of two contrasting worlds in an eventual payoff between the Hollywoods and the hippies.
And while the Spahn Ranch scene, and that slow-burn anticipation of Booth insisting his way into George’s house (Hello Bruce Dern!), is pure Tarantino both in the drawn out suspense and the unknowing as to the fate of Pitt’s character, it’s the ever menacing Charles Manson, his ghostly presence represented by his cult, that ends up being a chilling reminder that these sick characters were very real individuals.
It is for this reason when Pitt violently beats one of the hippies’ faces in to a bloody pulp for slashing his tire that audiences are treated to not just satisfaction, but justice against everything Manson stood for; it is this exact moment of the film when Tarantino not only teases a grand finale, but ultimately reveals his vision as a fairy tale.
Because while we’re constantly reminded that the make-believe world of Dalton and Booth does live and breathe in a very real Hollywood, with a sadly real Sharon Tate and a horrifyingly real Charles Manson, it is precisely because the Hollywood fantasy of Rick and Cliff rubs shoulders with true and tragic historical events that Tarantino gets to tell the story of the Manson murders of Tate & co. the way that Tarantino sees fit... as a fantasy.
There’s a reason the film is literally called “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” beyond being a titular homage to Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon A Time” epics; he’s telling a literal fairy tale, even though the factual events splice reality almost down to the very people, places, and exact events and time periods that horror struck reality fifty years ago in a glorified place such as golden Hollywood, LA. And it’s not how Tarantino fucks with history, but how he fucks with what we KNOW about history in order to properly (and brilliantly) divert from audience expectation.
Akin to Inglourious Basterds, Quentin is writing his story rooted in actual history but ultimately sticking to a glorified “what if” scenario; not just an alternate version of what could have happened the night Sharon Tate was murdered, but what we all really wanted to happen. Sure, Tarantino’s rewriting history but he’s giving the people what they (and he) ultimately want: satisfaction.
Throughout the film Tarantino is quick to remind us that this is just as much a story about fictional Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth as it is a tainted reality where Tate only whisks by with a whimsical presence, particularly a precious bit midway where she goes to the movies by herself to watch one of her films, and wallows in silent admiration as the audience warmly reacts to her scenes. Sure, it’s a fictional scene that sweetly respects the memory of a real person, but it’s also a beautiful representation of the blissful innocence that existed just before madness visibly swallowed this country.
And if there’s one scene that represents madness it’s Hollywood’s climax, and this being Tarantino we’re talking about, madness doesn’t come lightly.
As the third act boils down to its finale, we watch Tate & co. with horrible anticipation as the film closes in on the night of her murder, because at this point we’ve invested so much in who the characters are and why we care about them, we fear for them that much more knowing that (being a Tarantino movie) all of them have the potential of meeting a brutal and bloody ending.
There’s a sweet yet sobering look in the mirror as our lead men prepare to bid their careers together goodbye, Dalton embracing the no-name Sphaghetti westerns he was so hesitant to take on, Booth silently preparing for the unknown road that lies ahead of him, but between their final night of bonding; an obliterated Dalton drunkenly lounging in his pool, and an acid-induced Booth bonding with his pit bull, Tarantino’s characters are unknowingly placed in the perfect setup for Manson’s murderers.
The visual representation alone of a drunk Dalton in his robe, holding a full blender of margarita, cursing out the hippies for having their loud-ass muffler on his driveway at midnight only barely begins to depict the hilarity of horror during the “what if” night of August 9th, 1969. It’s when the hippies (save for a bailing Maya Hawke [nice Uma connection]) hatch their plot to murder the TV cowboys as a representation of killing those who taught them to kill, where the justice teased earlier is brougut to full fruition.
The last ten minutes of this goddamn film is absolute chaos, but it’s also literally Quentin rewarding his audience for sitting through more than two-and-a-half hours of anticipation and honestly, it’s an ending that’s never felt more earned in any other Tarantino flick. Watching Booth at gunpoint, stoned and smugly mocking Tex’s line about being the devil, and “doing the devil’s work” (real dialogue spoken the night of Tate’s murder) is just Quentin comically twisting the knife of anticipation, milking his last fuse before all hell breaks loose, and when it does, my god is it worth the wait.
For violence that’s so excessive to be as shockingly funny yet as satisfying as Hollywood’s can only be done by the likes of a masterclass such as Tarantino, and it’s not in the anticipation of the violence so much as it is in the summation of Tarantino rewriting history to have a happy ending that allows the bloodbath to be so goddamn delightful.
The moment the throwdown happens, in an instant suddenly everything pays off; the smug remarks of the hippies; Spahn Ranch; Brandy’s militant training; for fuck’s sake, even the goddamn BLOWTORCH returns in a hilarious callback that dares to errupt audiences with thunderous applause, as every irrelevant trinket of dialogue and random plot comes full circle.
Sure, it comes at the expense of folks having their testicles ripped off by a dog; their faces bloodily bashed into a mantle; their asses being fried to a crisp, as DiCaprio so gleefully puts it, but these are also supposed to be the same people who got away with brutally murdering a pregnant Sharon Tate and her friends, all but fifty years ago, and therein lies the melancholy of Quentin’s fairytale.
Once Upon A Time exudes a happy ending, if happiness can be found in excessive violence (and with nine films later, this being QT’s biggest box office opening ever, it sure as shit can be), but this is also perhaps the most bittersweet ending of any Tarantino flick, because we all went in expecting Sharon Tate to be brutally murdered, and walked out to her living; to her inviting Rick inside her home for a drink. It’s a sad ending because it obviously never went down that way on that horrible night; it’s not reality, but this is also Tarantino’s expression of justification in a bat-shit mad world. For Tarantino, happiness isn’t found in retelling history, but in developing a story of two Hollywood actors living next door to Sharon Tate, teaming up together with their dog to take down Charles Manson’s cronies. It’s a complete fantasy and for that, it’s just as special as it is somber.
Tarantino spends an entire film hypnotically paced, reflecting on an era of his upbringing, filled with characters who existed as real people, just to twist the story the way he wants to see the world. For that reason alone, Hollywood is not just a personal fantasy, nor only a beautiful, purposely over-saturated love letter to the film industry, but a significant representation of the man’s most mature and humbling work yet.