Article by: Anthony Florez
It’s difficult to put a thumb on Tarantino’s latest orgiastic celebration of 1960s film culture in Los Angeles. It’s at times a period drama, a black comedy, a western, all while never failing to be as meta as anything that’s come before and that’s saying something considering the writer/director once ended a film with his main character staring into camera declaring he’d created a masterpiece. QT has no problem winking at his audience and indulging in his fetishes, be they pop music montages, building tension through dialogue heavy scenes, or women’s dirty bare feet in every foreground shot he can find an excuse to put them in. He knows his audience and he knows we know him and that we’ll be along for the ride and, lulls in the narrative and tone aside, what a terrific ride it is.
Again, it’s difficult to describe what Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is really about, even if I had a habit of including story summaries there’s really no way of doing justice to how weird and deliberate and charmingly meandering the film can be. It really does smack of the same rhythms as his interviews, Tarantino is capable of being asked a straightforward question and turning the answer into a four act stanza that somehow comes back to a brilliant answer ten minutes after you’ve forgotten what was asked in the first place. This film is that. Once Upon A Time… “orbits” the Manson Family and the gruesome Sharon Tate murders that took place on El Cielo drive in 1969.
It’s not about those events but it is impeding tragedy adjacent and to be honest, when I first heard this would be the subject of Tarantino’s 9th film I recoiled in disgust. The last thing that should ever happen with those vile excuses for human beings and the horrible acts they committed and the real death knell of hippie culture is for them to be glamorized and recreated in celluloid forever by one of this generations most celebrated filmmakers. If there is a hell it doesn’t burn hot enough for the likes of Tex, Squeaky,… Dippy, Doc, and/or Tweety, I can’t remember all their names and they are too despicable for me to care.
Without going too far into detail Quentin Tarantino does a thing I was not expecting, something that turned my dread and discomfort on its head, and during a moment of extreme violence a thought occurred to me, and it’s that the man is smarter than I am, and I should have had a little more faith. But that’s as far as I’ll go, it’s an experience that is best…well, experienced, and in order to stop talking about how befuddling the film is to describe as a critic I’ll put a fine point on it: absolutely see Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, it’s event filmmaking and a peculiar joy that leaves the viewer slightly breathless and confused but satisfied. It’s a film I have to see again to try and figure out its beat and melody a little better like a great pop song or a new author.
Now, as for what’s under the hood. The last time I was this impressed with Leonardo DiCaprio, where I really forgot I was watching one of the most recognized actors in the business was probably, unironically, Django Unchained. Granted, he always throws himself into a role and deserved a statue a lot earlier than he finally got one but here is as layered and funny and sad and broken and brilliant as a Coen brother’s character or even a few of them in rolled into one. Brad Pitt is in top form as some kind of violent Robert Redford reincarnation with a cool dog and a world weary outlook that is hypnotic to watch with a pitch perfect dry humor. In fact, the entire supporting cast, top down, fires on all cylinders. It’s clear that Tarantino has constructed a story for every supporting character and each one feels like the star of their own movie. Even Margot Robbie, who is brilliant in her own right, manages to charm and possess the screen with comparatively less water to carry than she deserves but the effect is startling and effective.
And this is because ultimately, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is a very good magic trick. The first thought I had in the opening, and this doesn’t spoil anything because it was in the trailer, was how strange it was that the two main characters are being interviewed by some generic 60s Hollywood reporter who keeps looking over his shoulder into camera, describing their roles relevant to each other, then turns to them as the camera flips 180 degrees, and we can see behind the interviewer as he addresses his subjects.
But there is no camera behind the reporter. So who was he speaking to? From a lesser filmmaker this seems like a lazy mistake but Quentin Tarantino is the furthest thing from. He’s breaking the fourth wall a minute in because, well, it’s Quentin Tarantino. He’s willing to break suspension of disbelief just to show how confident he is at saying, “This is a magic trick,” and then two hours later he’s suddenly wearing your wristwatch, reading the mind of the man next to you, and there’s a lady on stage who has clearly been sawed in half — pick your jaws up from the floor on the way out. This is his charm. Despite the varying styles and quality of his films, at the end of the day Tarantino knows he’s out to entertain, and that’s the whole point. This is the reason we go to the cinema, to be challenged, confused, and told a tremendous fiction that we only wish could be true.