This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Kevin Jones’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a perfect example of a film that is both about nothing and everything. Its plot generally thin, floating by moment-to-moment as it soaks up the daily machinations of its characters' lives. However, it is rich with emotion, feeling, and an infectious vibe that encapsulates its setting and era. From the opening touches with the Columbia Pictures logo in the opening credits to the film posters and music, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood oozes 1960s Hollywood. It oozes it in content too, particularly when it comes to Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), two aging figures of old westerns who are now out of place in New Hollywood. All the while the encroaching Manson cult adds another layer, one that proves to be rich with bittersweet emotion.
On that front, perhaps the most affecting, is the addition of the Manson’s. One who is familiar with Quentin Tarantino’s work likely knows the fate awaiting them. It is still shocking, regardless, filled with boisterous excess and indulgence that is hysterical. It is precisely the fate that the audience wants for them and, in the spirit of his work, the one Tarantino delivers. Every bit of that is excellent. However, what remains is Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). The Manson cult’s creepiness is well depicted, particularly in a sickly funny yet wholly eerie encounter between them and Cliff. The danger they pose is never downplayed, while the reality of what will happen to Sharon is felt in each of her scenes. Yet, she is not bogged down by this existential weight. Robbie plays Sharon with a quiet grace, immense kindness, and style. She is full of life, effervescent in her every move with an infectious energy that the film is built around.
But, the reality of that situation creates some bittersweet emotion. The joy of seeing those who would kill her have the tables turned on them in glorious fashion is sweet, but tinged with tears. As Sharon gleefully welcomes Rick in at the end of the film while looking forward to her forthcoming baby, it is hard to not think of that “what if” question. One can easily get lost in the joy of watching her remember/reenact her training with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) or her freeing dancing at a Playboy Mansion party, but I was left with a heavy heart upon the finale. It is not something I expected, considering how well-realized and empathetic Tarantino and Robbie’s portrayal of Tate is, but it is something that lingered with me nonetheless. Tarantino is, obviously, aware of the reality and in eschewing it in favor of a fitting finale, he chooses a different way to showcase the Manson brutality. Their viciousness is still on display beforehand, but he does not need to resort to cheap exploitation of Tate’s final moments. Rather, he shows her life and what was snuffed out due to these warped minds, offering her the happy ending that the cult members deprived her. Even if bittersweet, it is so touching and ends up being the overwhelming feeling left by Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Alongside Tate is a more direct comment on Hollywood, namely in the faces, situations, and films that make up that world. Tarantino adorns the background with his favorite films of 1968 and 1969, adding in a soundtrack made of iconic, touchstone songs of the era. Name drops and fetishizing of 35mm, old classic shows, and the streets, people, and styles that made up Hollywood/television productions of the era are a constant. He captures the vibe of the era and the feeling so well, settling into a relaxed, diverting, and scattered style that fits the film’s loose plotting perfectly. Blending in flashbacks that both build out the characters - especially when it comes to Cliff’s memories of Bruce Lee or Randy (Kurt Russell) - and further add to the behind-the-scenes Hollywood feeling, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is precisely the type of film that someone who loves Hollywood will adore. It shows the negative sides but it wraps them up together with positive, showing the flawed and hardly magical yet still idolized and iconic world with unabashed love. We know Tarantino loves Hollywood, something that shines through and impacts the audience in an unexpectedly deep way. This is a film wrapped up in the lore and mythology of Hollywood, as one would expect, with this element proving quite enrapturing.
In the same vein, Tarantino not only captures the feeling of late-60s Hollywood but also the films. In exploring Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth’s careers, he showcases the changing landscape older stars faced as films barrelled towards New Hollywood and television took off. From starring on his show to having a failed movie career, Dalton typifies the old western actor. Not only is he forced to go to Italy to make spaghetti westerns, but he makes guest appearances on new shows as the villain. As he is brutally told by producer Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino), Dalton is no longer himself. He is just the man cast to pass the torch to the next generation. But, he is not ready to go away yet. He may not be the new guy, but he still wants to do what he has always done: act. Living next door to Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha), he hopes to possibly be cast in one of his films. One knows this is a pipe dream, something unlikely to happen for a man of Dalton’s stature, but he dreams nonetheless.
Cliff’s journey often mirrors Dalton’s in this, with the pair linked not only by their collaboration as star and stuntman but by this creeping feeling of dread. Both can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but they are not ready for the ride to end. One of the film’s most powerful moments comes via Rick’s conversation with the young Trudi Fraser (Julia Butters) with Rick describing the plot of a western novel he is reading, realizing just how much he mirrors the aging protagonist who wants nothing more than to do his job and turn back time a bit. Small moments that follow, such as Trudi’s compliment of Rick’s acting, hit with a quiet, unassuming power. Any scene, really, of Rick on the set of “Lancer” is excellent, either in the tragicomedy moments in the trailer or on set with James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant), which capture the cracks in the movie star facade Rick had created. The classic western story of an aging man in a changing world is given a facelift by Tarantino, filtered through late-1960s television (with an added dose of hippie hate, further placing Rick outside of then-modern society), playing with fantastic emotion and execution. DiCaprio’s performance shines in these moments, capturing that mournful and regretful side of Dalton, welling up with tears as he gets a simple compliment or trying to hold them back as his partnership with Cliff ends. It is a great, universal touch to a film that can often feel very “Hollywood”.
This characterization is only part of what makes its depiction of Hollywood so special with the events at the Spahn ranch adding another. As the home of the Manson cult and a former western movie set, the Spahn ranch is the perfect encapsulation of Tarantino’s portrayal of Hollywood. It shows the destructive forces within the city that can often make it a living hell. As a result, Tarantino pulls back the facade on the city he loves. The Spahn ranch was great, yes, but it is not anymore. It is a place utilized for horrific things, while Spahn himself (Bruce Dern) does not even remember those he worked with, including Cliff.
Despite Tarantino’s love of old films and this era in particular, these scenes highlight a recognition that these are all fleeting. Rick and Cliff are fun, but also absurd in how they try to fight the progression of time. While he may be giving these small-screen heroes a celebration befitting them - and, of course, Tate loves Dalton - Tarantino still shows that nobody is immune to time, with both men (and their real-life counterparts) having been forgotten and replaced over time. One will have their moment, it will be over, and then they must find peace with that or else the anger/loss will destroy them. It is a changing world and everything cannot be preserved - even Tarantino's beloved classic films - with one forced to either adapt or continue to fade into obscurity.
It is with this fleeting nature of memory and history that Tarantino approaches the Sharon Tate, opting to re-write it in a way far more befitting her life: happiness. Time is always moving forward and, with it, the past fades away. With Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino ensures that the narrative on Tate will shift away from the gory details of her death. Rather, he amplifies her vibrancy, presence, and passion for life. He shows the heinousness of stamping out such light without having to show the heinous part, allowing almost ethereal glow to color the rest of the film. Tate is a major takeaway from this film - as is Robbie’s performance - but so too are the stories of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth, exemplifying those who refuse to change with the times and face the existential reminder of their fate on a daily basis. All wrapped up in an ambitious and far-reaching tale of Hollywood lore, mythology, demons, and glory, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a wonder. Moving, thrilling, and hysterical, this immediately ranks among Tarantino’s best films.