This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Jordan James Brooks’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
“I’m the devil and I’m here to do devil shit.”
I’ve never been the biggest fan of Tarantino’s work, which is strange considering my love for dialogue in movies. I’ve always been aware of the often, not-so-subtle callbacks he does to films of the past that influenced him, and I’ve often been impressed by the way he bends genres. I know I’m in a small minority when I say this, but Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood is my favorite film from Tarantino, and it’s ultimately the first one that’s really impressed me in such a significant way. In fact, I loved this one so much when it came out, I based one of my final University essays on the comparison of Tarantino’s most recent film with his very first, in an analyzation of independent and studio-funded films. It isn’t just the heavy focus on pop culture and movements of the late sixties and a changing America, it’s the satirical approach to historical accuracy (accuracy, which is of course thrown out of the window much like in Inglorious Bastards), which presents an alternate history that’s tangled up with his own larger-than-life characters with a script that’s brimming with energy and attitude.
The premise is set in Hollywood, 1969 and follows Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), once an up and coming film actor and star of a popular TV series, but a few bad choices have set his career back, leaving him pondering on whether or not he should quit showbiz altogether. His best friend, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), is an aging stuntman whose career too - is largely over. While Booth scrapes his way through life, Dalton still lives a life of luxury in the Hollywood hills, with his newly homed neighbors being Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).
I can remember the summer of 2017 when the first rumors began surrounding the topic of Tarantino’s latest film. Back then, it was assumed that the film’s narrative would strictly address the Manson murders with a direct focus on Sharon Tate; thank god that wasn’t the case. As we learned more and more about the themes his new film would cover, it became more and more obvious to me that this film was covering a period I’m in absolute awe of. The 1960s birthed some of my all time favorite films, music, TV shows, and it’s a decade I’ve wildly researched and obsessed over throughput the years; considering the film was said to be set in 1969, I began contemplating the kind of material that might be addressed from Woodstock to the Moon Landing to the Beatles’ split to the death of Brian Jones. Though when making a film that covers such a pivotal year, not only would it be very difficult to cover everything, it would be somewhat ignorant to avoid coverage of the Tate-LaBianca murders, as it was a complete turning point for America and harked the end of the sixties in a horrid and brutal manner.
I don’t have much in common with Tarantino; he’s openly slandered some cinematic greats over the years, from Alfred Hitchcock to Bruce Lee. Both of which, he’s repeatedly borrowed (or blatantly stolen) from in his films. But it’s his love for Spaghetti Westerns that I’ve always admired, as it’s not a genre that’s completely approachable to everyone outside of Sergio Leone’s work, and it certainly doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. Having already made two Westerns of his own, one jumping on the unofficial sequel/spin-off craze following in the footsteps of Sergio Corbucci’s Django, and the other largely being influenced by the snowy frontier flicks, The Great Silence and Cut Throats Nine, Tarantino has now come full circle as he honors the fading Hollywood star through the character of Rick Dalton. It’s a topic that’s hard to address when referring to the Spaghetti Western, or any European genre overall; there’s been a lot of American actors that crossed over into Euro films, especially during the late sixties and early seventies, from Lee Van Cleef to Charles Bronson. Although it’s a career move that was technically frowned upon at the time, I can’t overstate the amount of great films we’ve had through the process; I know Euro Westerns aren’t the most popular of films (even today), but I consider some of them to be my favorite movies of all time; and I know for a fact, that an American filmmaker could never have recreated the same grittiness and desperation that the Italians captured outside of the States.
I’m not gonna get too much into the lead characters. Brad Pitt undeniably gives the most memorable performance as the charismatic stuntman, Cliff Booth, who carries more self-confidence than his partner, Rick Dalton, portrayed naturally by Leonardo DiCaprio. Then there’s Margot Robbie, who I was most eager to see how she would portray Sharon Tate. As I figured, she looks nothing like her onscreen at all, but she does a great job on the voice and absolutely nails her sweet demeanor. Before word of Tarantino’s film had even broke out, I always thought the Australian actress, Rose Byrne shared a great resemblance to Tate, and I always longed for her to give it a go at portraying her onscreen. It’s probably unlikely to happen now, though following a string of disrespectful features about Sharon Tate, I’m thankful her younger sister, Debra gave her blessing to both Tarantino and Margot Robbie, even speaking of how impressed she was herself at her performance upon visiting the set. There’s even a nice inclusion of Sharon Tate herself starring in The Wrecking Crew during the cinema scene. And she isn’t the only real life star to be depicted, as her close circle play a big part in her storyline. Aside from the despicable Roman Polanski, who is given a more than reliable performance from Rafal Zawierucha (I love the way he moans “Sharon” at the airport 😂, he nails it), the equally innocent soul Jay Sebring, who I’ve always felt very sorry for, is also faithfully represented by Emile Hirsch. Even bigger names are pleasantly portrayed such as Damian Lewis who greatly resembles Steve McQueen, and Mike Moh who portrays Bruce Lee in one notable scene, which seemingly plays a hand in trying to demean Lee’s legacy thanks to Tarantino’s own personal disliking for the martial arts legend. As for the actor portraying Charles Manson - you only see him for one brief scene, which is fitting as all that stuff slowly unfolds in the background.
Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood concludes with a bittersweet twist, following a hilarious manic twenty-minutes of bloody-satisfying violence evoked against three actors portraying Tex Watson, Susan Atkins (that bitch’s death is SO satisfying 🙏🏻) and (who I believe to be) Patricia Krenwinkel, the film’s title appears onscreen for a final word. After all, this is “once upon a time”, a retelling of a story that changed not only Hollywood, but America and the world. The Manson murders were of course yet another grave and highly publicized news story that had a hand in desensitizing the public to violence, which would soon begin to show up more and more within the movies. Ending the tale on such a fulfilling end creates a huge sense of relief, but also a great sadness, as we all know exactly what went down in real life, and it’s such a shame Tarantino doesn’t actually have an ability to change historical events outside of his films. And aside from the ending, the entire film is a riot of satirical writing, amusing performances from some of the greats of a present and past Hollywood, and a damn fine soundtrack to vibe to. It’s so interesting to see so many things I’ve read about over the years come to life on screen, but blended with Tarantino’s own perverse universe, which actually isn’t that much crazier from the real world. Say what you want about him, but he does his research. There are a few historical inaccuracies scattered about (aside from the obvious narrative changes), but complete accuracy was never the general intention. Atlas, the film is also an impressive love letter to Hollywood, 1969 and European cinema (more specifically Spaghetti Westerns), and it just wholly speaks to me, more so than any film Tarantino has ever made, and more so than any movie in recent years. Nothing short of a masterpiece.