This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Adam’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is quite possibly the most conflicted I've felt about a film in years. To be more specific, I loved so much of what the film had to offer, but the elements that I wasn't on board with were so challenging and frustrating that they've left me incredibly torn about where I sit. To give some additional context to my feelings, I was watching the first half thinking this was far and away my favourite Tarantino film yet. In comparison, many of the decisions through the second half of the film left me feeling incredibly distant, frustrated, and even a little out of touch by the time the film had ended. If anything can be said about the film, it's that it places a lot on the table for digestion. I think the best way for me to really reconcile my thoughts on the film are to identify what I loved about it, as well as what I disliked.
What I Loved
I sincerely love how the film is effectively plotless, offering a slice-of-life view of late 60s Hollywood for these two main characters. The lackadaisical nature of the film's pacing makes it incredibly easy to just lay back and enjoy this film as a mood piece rather than a straight narrative. I feel as though this approach is Tarantino's style distilled to its essence without any bullshit, as it isn't filtered through a new narrative but rather showering adoration directly on this point in time.
Adding to the almost freakish watchability of the film is the tremendous production design; every inch of the film's presentation drew me into this world and made me absolutely believe that the film was set in that period of time. Supplementing the visual presentation is the brilliant soundtrack; effectively a plunderphonics album, the soundscape for this film places us directly in this nostalgic, blissful space that makes it feel even more like a moodpiece than a conventional film. The sequences where I was absolutely enraptured with the film was when Cliff is driving home to drive-in cinema adjacent trailer, as well as the simple but beautiful montage of classic neon signage lighting up across the city; both stunning moments and worth watching the film for alone.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt's performances in the film are both wonderful, with Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth being two of Tarantino's greatest characters in my opinion. Rick's place in the film as a man grappling with the prospect of becoming irrelevant is portrayed with a surprising amount of emotional pathos for a Tarantino film, which is something that genuinely took me by surprise. Watching him struggle with the possibility that the world is beginning to pass him by is where the film is most engaging. Cliff is a decidedly simpler character by comparison -- at least on the surface-- but this does not mean he isn't memorable at all. Offering a slightly less outward-facing struggle of a man caught up in industrial change, the joys of Cliff's scenes are found in Brad Pitt's raw charismatic ability to just exist in this world and make it appealing. Tarantino and Pitt are clearly in sync with one another, and this really shows in the apparent ease by which he's able to immediately engage the audience.
What I Didn't Love
The most frustrating element of this film, to me, was it's usage of Margot Robbie's Sharon Tate, and by extension its usage of all the female characters. Robbie is terrific in her portrayal of Sharon Tate, but I couldn't shake the feeling whilst watching that she wasn't really being given much to do. My feelings on this matter were further complicated in the film's climax. I went into watching this movie already assuming that Tarantino wasn't going to depict the death of Sharon Tate, given the title of the film and his approach with Inglourious Basterds. What I wasn't on board with though, was feeling that Tate was being effectively used as bait for the audience, hanging over the film. Would I have been more comfortable with this, had she been given even the slightest bit of characterisation in parallel to the other two leads? I think so. I really have to think about what the aim was here; sure, Tate won't be explored too much in the film out of respect for her memory, but you'll also get a really good look at her feet. I'm curious to see if the supposed 4-hour cut of the film improves upon this aspect, I'd absolutely watch an extended version of the film
The Bottom Line
There's so much to enjoy about the film's presentation and lead performances, but those smaller sticking points just hang above my overall enjoyment of the way it comes together. I'm definitely going to rewatch this to see if I feel a little better after revisiting, but at this moment I feel incredibly conflicted. I definitely don't disagree with those who've responded really positively to this film, this is simply a matter of my own personal challenges with some of its decisions overshadowing what is a really well made film.