Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood loves to play with perception

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt star in ONCE UPON TIME IN HOLLYWOOD.

Cinephile wizard Quentin Tarantino has said time and time again that he plans to retire after making his 10th film, and after watching his newest, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, I sincerely hope he’s joking. I could write an essay about the genius behind Tarantino’s wit and bloody satiric charm—while smoking cigars and sipping overpriced scotch on a cold summer’s day with a group of like-minded cinema geeks—but I’m not going to. Instead, I’ll tell you why parts of his latest film are some of my favourite moments of his work. So buckle up. 

Simply, Once Upon A Time plays with your perceptions as a viewer—no matter how well versed you are in film and the cultural nostalgia of late 1960s Hollywood. This is no standard revenge-plot Tarantino flick like its predecessors The Hateful Eight and Django Unchained, Inglourious Basterds, and the Kill Bills.

The plot follows Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a self-loathing, aging, alcoholic actor who has a habit of being cast as the “heavy”—Hollywood lingo for the bad guy—and his chiseled, no nonsense stunt double/friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as they gallivant through Hollywood pictures, hippies, and star studded hedonism. Booth also has an amazing pooch named Brandi, who exists for comedic effect and cute moments. 

Next door to Dalton is director Roman Polanski (played by a very convincing Rafal Zawierucha) and his pin-up wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie)—who honestly doesn’t get enough real screen time, but more on that later. 

Anyone who knows the name Sharon Tate knows how she ended up and, yes, the maniac Manson (Damon Herriman) does make an appearance in his iconic leather jacket and Christ hair. Now I don’t know about you, but I had somewhat of an obsession with the Manson family in my late junior high years and I have watched close to four documentaries about “Helter Skelter” and all that carnage, so right when I saw him on screen I thought I knew where the film was going. Was this just going to be Tarantino’s take on Manson and Joan Didion’s epic The White Album? (If you haven’t read that book, please do.) Luckily, I was wrong. 

Nothing in the film feels done before and there isn’t one part that is monotonous and boring to watch, whether it be Dalton’s interchangeable reality/Western TV acting, Booth’s day-to-day sprawls or scenes with Randy (Kurt Russell) and Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino). 

Without giving too much away, the story is actually three (Dalton’s, Booth’s and Tate’s), each somewhat intertwined with the rest, somewhat like Pulp Fiction. The film also loves to switch up genre like it’s going out of style in terms of cinematography, dialogue, and neon cultural nostalgia. There are times of subtle and loud hilarity, times of comedic pain, times of beautifully shot violence—all you really want out of a Tarantino film. 

In his career as a director Tarantino has left his mark on the genres he adores, but in moments of this film it watches like he’s attempting to parody not only Hollywood, but himself. For example, It was both perplexing and visually stimulating to see a faux Inglourious Basterds scene as well as countless Spaghetti Western spoofs. 

Scenes at the Spahn Ranch—the Manson Family commune, which used to be an old movie set for Westerns like Bonanza—were very unsettling, almost giving a Devils Rejects horror sort of vibe. This could be because every cultist’s name and slight detail of the film’s ranch was derived from fact, but also the camera being slightly slanted amplified the eerie atmosphere. Dakota Fanning’s part as the Manson family’s “Squeaky” was also beautifully acted, and aptly disturbing.       

Tarantino clearly knew what and who he was paying homage to in close to every scene of this movie and made sure his character’s motivations were crystal clear. This is true for nearly everyone except Sharon Tate. Robbie probably only has five actual lines (though we do see her plenty) and essentially becomes an afterthought for the actual plot of the film. I don’t know if this was deliberate, but if you market a film to have Margot Robbie be the sole person on your poster maybe use more of her talents than just her looks. 

Most of the actual story bits also focus wholly on the men, but all of the female actors give dynamite performances in their minor roles. Stand outs include the 10-year-old Julia Butters who plays a ridiculously smart child actor and Maya Hawke (Robin from Stranger Things 3) who is only credited as Flower Child, but probably a stand in for Linda Kasabian—the person who spilled the beans on the real Tate murders and had Manson arrested.   

There is a crucial reason Robbie’s Tate isn’t the focus and that’s due to the films ending. The last 20 minutes of Once Upon a Time relies heavily on the viewers’ knowledge of what actually went down on Cielo Drive on Aug. 9, 1969—down to the actual timer on the screen—and then in the last 10 minutes, a gory, acid-dipped curveball is thrown that is sadistically entertaining to watch.  

For me, Once Upon a Time begs for another watch and I didn’t really get that feeling from The Hateful Eight or Django Unchained. While both are enjoyable films, Once Upon a Time is special and maybe that’s due to the fact that it feels like Tarantino at his most personable. It’s a critique on Hollywood, himself, and his success and it’s a hell of a way to spend two hours and 40 minutes. 

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