Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood is a film about Rick Dalton, a fading Western and Action star and his stunt double/assistant Cliff Booth attempting to keep Rick's career alive as well as themselves as Cliff runs afoul of the Manson family cult. The film also follows actress Sharon Tate who with her husband Roman Polanski live next door to Rick. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie and a whole host of other cameos and supporting parts. The film is written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.
I've known people throughout my life who have deep reverence for who Quentin Tarantino and his works. I haven't shared that passion, but I respect his films and how he's indelibly able to create original films that actually draw an audience. He's never had to compromise his standing as an original filmmaker by taking on a project as a hired gun. He's unequivocally his own filmmaker and I respect that a great deal. Yet, I would never consider him a great filmmaker.
He's never had to challenge himself beyond his own vision. His vision is limited to the small world of things he's nostalgic about. Tarantino makes you watch what he watched in order to try and make you love it or at least seek it out. He packs his time in front of the screen into our time in front of the screen to the detriment of the film at hand. By the fifth or sixth unique marquee going slowly by as a character walks or drives to their destination, it's an exhausted trope and just another way to pump more information at us than we need to watch what he wants us to watch. We should want to watch it because it's lovingly crafted.
Tarantino hires incredible craftspeople to build the world for him to play in. I love Robert Richardson's cinematography in this film. He's able to create the look and feel of TV shows from the '60s while also having an incredibly modern movement in every frame. He's been with Tarantino since Kill Bill and it shows his prowess at adapting this dense material. Then there's Fred Raskin's editing. Raskin has also been with Tarantino for over a decade and he's got the flair of the style down. He matches the old footage of TV shows or films with the new original material with impeccable nuance while also keeping in mind Tarantino's affinity for smash and jump cuts.
In mentioning the editing it's also worth noting that Tarantino's love of playing with time is at a minimum here. The story is built on the synchronicity of Rick living next to the Polanskis and how the historical events of 1969 shape up. There's a few flashbacks, but for the most part, this is a linear film. As a linear film, though, it feels far too long. By the fourth or fifth tracking shot of someone's feet and the fourth or fifth sequence of someone's long drive, I was bored. At least with the vignettes of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill we get a lost sense of time and it feels as if there's more momentum. The loss of momentum frustrates the historical events of the narrative as well.
Any one can look up the fate of Sharon Tate and her guests and all of the press for the film has described the film as Tarantino's "Manson movie," but by the time the story connects at that fateful event, I've no interest in Tate at all. Her tangential story has little to do with the main plot and as most of Margot Robbie's minimal or sometimes inaudible dialogue proves, the story finds her of little importance either as she's an object or at best a voyeuristic subject, never knowing about her, but always seeing her. All of the scenes with Tate could be completely cut out as they serve little purpose to the final product.
Yet, as unimpressed as I am by the Sharon Tate storyline, I feel Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton is utterly riveting. I don't know how he does it, but Tarantino is able to find that depth with DiCaprio that other directors have only scratched the surface of in past roles. I wish that the story had been only following DiCaprio. He propels the energy of the film from when he's somewhat sober Rick with a stutter, to in-character Rick with the confidence in the role he's playing, to the drunk Rick who forgets himself. DiCaprio is fully Rick Dalton and at the peak of what we've seen him accomplish.
I don't love and sometimes don't like Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, but I think it's a film worth seeing. Not only is it an original vision which the cineplexes of our modern era sorely lack, but it has stellar performances, an intriguing revisionism, and incredible craft pulling it all together.