This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Noah Thompson’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
"Is everybody okay?"
"Well, the fucking hippies aren't, that's for goddamn sure."
A second viewing can either make or break a film, and I'd say this revisit of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood certainly makes it. I'm going to do something I don't do very often with my second viewings, and make this a spoiler review. I feel like that's just the best way I can go about the things I both liked and wasn't a big fan of with the feature. Specifically, I want to focus on three distinct aspects that strongly appeal to me from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. This may end up being a more detailed review than normal, so buckle up, and away we go.
For starters, there is the narrative of "the hero" or "the lead." The main character of the film is Rick Dalton, an actor made famous from a western television show now fading into obscurity. On the other side, a rising star shines by the name of Sharon Tate. It's inherent for most everyone, whether you're from Hollywood or not, to want to be the hero. The person in the limelight. Even if it's for an inconsequential amount of time, the feeling of worth isn't just from how you feel about yourself, it's how others see you too. Though Rick falls into the narrative the most by default of being the main character, my favorite example of it lays with the story of Cliff Booth. Like a handful of others, I will admit the Bruce Lee scene sort of bothers me. Mike Moh, the actor playing Lee, does an impeccable job replicating the look and cadence of the legendary figure. He should be getting nothing but praise. Yet, the portrayal of Lee as someone who's cocky, picking fights, and saying he'd turn Muhammad Ali into "a cripple" goes against all that's known about Lee's character in show business. It's bothersome, but I have an alternate take to it that involves Booth.
When I first saw Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I thought the whole sequence of Cliff fighting Bruce Lee on the set was a fantasy. Cliff daydreaming while on the top of Rick's roof. Now I know that's not the case, but when I did see it like that, I didn't have as much of an issue with the scene. Even now, it doesn't bother me as much as others, because I look at it not as an exact memory of something that happened, but how Cliff remembered it. I'm more inclined to believe when Cliff got into a fight with Bruce Lee, he got his ass handed to him, and it was probably him that got thrown into that car by Bruce. Yet, this isn't reality, this is Cliff looking back on the time he got to stop being the stuntman and start being the guy that got to fight Bruce fuckin' Lee. It's easy to think that when we remember stuff where we're in danger or in a "leading" situation, we stretch the truth and overemphasize aspects. Cliff looks back, smiles, lights up, and just for a small moment propels himself as the lead, and in film terms, "the hero."
The second thing that caught my attention with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was its perspective of emotional openness from the perspective of Rick and Cliff. Tarantino's filmography is often focused on men and women who are stern. They do what they do, and very rarely do they break out into any other emotion than rage. A handful of times throughout the film, Rick breaks down into tears. This is Quentin showing us behind the curtain of storytelling. Strong, confident heroes are crafted by flawed, anxious people. That, and it's insanely important to be a friend, and to do what you can to build the confidence in your craft and daily life. Cliff, like he says early on, carries Rick's load. That doesn't just involve being his stuntman, that includes being his shoulder to cry on, tossing back beers with him, and reminding him when he needs it most that he's "Rick fuckin' Dalton." As we see in the tremendous final moment shared with Rick and the child actress (actor) from Lancer, something as simple as a sweet compliment from a kid can bring you tears of joy and be exactly what you may need at a specific moment.
There's an unexpected tenderness from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and that's something I truly, deeply love about it. Seeing Rick and Cliff watching F.B.I. on TV while drinking and commenting on what all's happening reminds me of one of my friends, where over the summer we've hung out, drank colas, eaten pizza, passed the vape, and watched episodes of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. It's not super eventful, but it's small moments like these I end up remembering and cherishing. It's reaffirming when you're at your lowest moments to know there are people out there who care for you and enjoy your company. If I could generalize as much as possible what I think the point of Once Upon a Time Hollywood is, something that bleeds into the last thing I want to discuss, it's that you should love the things you love, open yourself up to love, and be willing to defend what you love with no exceptions.
The final piece is something that's been prevalent in the past few films Tarantino has brought us, and that's the revenge fantasy. More specifically, "revisionist history." The previous two examples that are most prevalent and easily comparable to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood are Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained. They're films that take place in the past, revolve around terrible tragedies of the past, and give a fantastical outlet to vent and hit back on the horrid people and beliefs responsible for the pain of the past. In Inglorious Basterds, it was the Jews getting revenge against the Nazis. In Django Unchained, it's slaves getting revenge against slave owners. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and this is my own view on it, it's Tarantino against the destruction of "the golden age" of Hollywood at the hands of the Manson "family." Sharon Tate is a representation to Quentin of all that was pure, lovable, and hopeful of the Hollywood of old, something that was ripped away by the Mansons. After a recent string of books, TV specials, and films coming to the defense of the "family" from the megalomaniac mind of Manson, Quentin puts his foot down, leans back into his fantasy, and says to the family "You took away something that was precious to me, so fuck you, you get no mercy."
What follows I've officially decided is my new favorite burst of Tarantino violence from his entire filmography, my favorite scene of the year thus far, and something that may even be in at least my top twenty favorite scenes of the 2010s. Cliff Booth and Rick Dalton, accompanied by Cliff's dog and Rick's wife, utterly eviscerate the "family" and the hatred and bile they represent. One gets his balls bitten to shit and his face stomped in, another gets her face turned into blood paste after being bashed in by Cliff a dozen times, and the last one gets her nose shattered and faces the fire of Rick's flamethrower. It's indulgent, gory, absurd, and I loved every goddamn moment of it even on this second viewing. Nazis deserve no air, slave owners deserve no air, and baby killers absolutely, undoubtedly, beyond any possible question do not deserve air. What actually happened was a thousand times more awful than what happens in this movie, so in my eyes, Quentin is allowed to give us some release. This is a movie, this is the realm of make believe, so give the bad guys a true, pure bad guy demise, and let the good guys prosper.
In conclusion, this is still in the lower tier of Tarantino's works, but I'd be dammed if it still isn't a stellar work. I'd classify it as Quentin's "flawed masterpiece." It could've benefited from cutting some of the Lancer stuff with Rick, adding in some more moments with Sharon, and reworking the scene with Bruce Lee, yet this is still chump change compared to what it all does right in my eyes. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is, akin to Damien Chazelle's La La Land, an unabashedly emotionally driven love letter to Hollywood and everything about film and show business that makes sites like Letterboxd possible. If you're reading this, especially if you've read this far, you have your own way in which you love film. The love for 1960's Hollywood, Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth and Sharon Tate, cars and radio, it's love that rubs off on me in the best way. Thank you Quentin Tarantino and everyone involved with the production of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood for giving us something flawed but memorable and endearing in so many ways. Love and peace to my family and friends, and death and misfortune to "the family" and their friends.
"You're a good friend."