Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Cinematographer: Robert Richardson
Producer: David Heyman, Shannon McIntosh, and Quentin Tarantino
by Jon Cvack
I haven’t revisited many of Tarantino’s films after Kill Bill (2003/2004). I’ve watched the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs (1992) more times than I can remember, I’ve seen Pulp Fiction (1994) so many times it’s now lost its magic, Jackie Brown (1997) gets better and better with age, and Kill Bill is arguably his magnum opus - and if not his best film, at least his most technically proficient (though my favorite remains Reservoir Dogs).
The first time I noticed a magic had been lost was with Death Proof (2007). Revisiting the extended version a couple years ago (which is nearly two hours long), I enjoyed the story more than the first time (likely due to the longer running time), yet something felt missing. Whatever holistic universe Tarantino had created up to that point felt mostly absent. From there he made Inglourious Basterds (2009) which is by far the best of his post-Kill Bill filmography; though even that film I haven’t gone back to more than a couple times, serving as the first Tarantino film that took place beyond his hard boiled world, followed by Django Unchained (2012) and The Hateful Eight (2015); the latter which I liked a lot but struggled to finish on a second viewing, the former I’ve failed to see again, not because I don’t like it but because if I’m in the mood for a Tarantino film I’m probably going to grab one of his first five movies instead.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.. continued this shift, following an ailing movie star and his stunt buddy/body double who becomes - for the most part - tangentially involved with the Manson murders. It was the type of plot that got you excited for what Tarantino would do; both for offering his vision of 1960s Los Angeles and Hollywood when movies remained the pinnacle of culture and the Vietnam War led to a counter culture that would one day be corrupted by a murderous cult leader, Charles Manson Manson.
A few years back I’d read Bela Lugosi’s Helter Skelter (1974) - a detailed historical account, widely considered the definitive book on the Manson murders. From Manson’s self-comparison to Jesus in Haight-Ashbury to his friendship to Beach Boy Danny Wilson to his recruitment of estranged hippie girls and their use of LSD to his move to Death Valley where he prepared for what he believed was an inevitable race war - at 600 pages, the story is truly incredible and arguably the most gripping true story in a century.
Granted, Tarantino’s film isn’t necessarily about the Manson murders, and for what it does include, his film’s not wrong for focusing on the Hollywood portion. Nevertheless, given that it’s Quentin fucking Tarantino - an individual who is an encyclopedia of pop knowledge, you can’t help but feel disappointed in how little of the history is explored.
The film opens up with an interview on the set of the television series Bounty Law between actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double and driver Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). From the get go, there’s something stilted about the conversation; feeling as though the lines are being performed rather than the natural flow of Tarantino’s typical opening dialogue. It might have been the point; in having two characters act for the goofy interviewer, maybe even playing as a joke, but the night after watching this I pulled up the opening Reservoir Dog scene and was hooked for the whole twelve minutes; where each character felt real and saying the lines in the moment. I still don’t know how this works given how goofy the situation is. There was a rawness and love for the rough, bizarre, and unattractive; a willingness to show people we have never seen.
With Bounty Law over, Dalton fears for his career, developing a drinking problem as a result. Dalton and Cliff head to a local lounge for a couple drinks where they meet agent Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino), warning Dalton that he’s now becoming a “heavy man”; that is, an actor who only serves to be the television villain that gets killed or arrested. And as he ages, those roles could increasingly dry up. Schwarzs recommends Dalton get involved with the Italian spaghetti westerns craze over in Italy. Dalton finds the idea appaleing; seeing them as little more than B-movies, if that.
Cliff hasn't been hired as a stunt double in some time, both because of Dalton’s limited work and since he’s burned his contacts after rumors spread that he killed his wife. He lives in a trailer with a pitbull named Brandy and a comparable drinking problem to Dalton. Dropping Dalton home one night, they see director Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate pulling up to their house next door; exciting Dalton for the chance that it could help his fledgling career.
The next day Cliff sees who we surmise is Charlie Manson walking up to the Polanski house. After seeing a cute hippie girl (Margaret Qualley) around town, Dalton later goes to the set of The Wrecking Crew where he’s once again the heavy man and tries to get Cliff on as a stunt coordinator for Randy’s crew (Kurt Russell). Randy refuses because rumor has it that Cliff killed his wife, but Randy soon gives in and later Cliff gets in a fight with Bruce Lee on the neighboring set of The Green Hornet which is a weird scene in which Cliff looks to be about to kick the shit out of Lee until Randy appears and puts an end to it; firing him.
The scene is a perfect example of Tarantino’s biggest weakness since Kill, in which he offers tangential scenes that seem to have nothing to do with the plot; once reserved for dialogue that had nothing to do with the characters, but with characters that were very much involved with the plot.
Dalton leaves and finds the hippie girl hitchhiking and offers her a ride home, learning her name is Pussycat. She comes on strong, offering to repay him with sexual favors to which Cliff demands an ID, settling on letting her lie her head in his lap while he drives her off to the Spahn Ranch on the city edges. Spahn Ranch is an old western set, true to the Manson stories, which Cliff of course knows about with his past work; specifically the owner, George Spahn (Bruce Dern).
Dalton is then back on the set of Lancer, playing the heavy man opposite the show’s lead James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant); who for some reason looks like a complete dork, playing a clean cut sheriff, which I guess was the point, but seemed completely wrong for Olyphant who thrives with his gray hair and five o’clock shadow, often intimidating even when being goofy, such as Santa Clarita Diet. Before shooting begins, Dalton meets up with a young girl Trudi Fraser (Julia Butters) and again Tarantino enters in an incredibly and needlessly long dialogue. Writing this almost two weeks later (and reviewing this after I revisited the film about a month ago), I fail to remember a single thing discussed other than that Dalton leaves feeling empowered.
We’re then on the set and so begins the best part of the movie as we watch Dalton perform on this cheesy western show, with things going fine until he starts forgetting lines, leading him to go freak out in his dressing room and deliver another classic scene from Leo that’ll be watched for years. He returns to the set and knocks it out of the park and the girl compliments him in a moment that’s now become a meme. He regains confidence and heads home with Cliff and the two watch his role The F.B.I. and Schwarz finally convinces him to go to Italy and star in the spaghetti westerns. But we don’t get to follow him there; the film instead jumping time to his return.
I’m still confused by this as it seemed like one of the most exciting sequences Tarantino could have shot; showing the world of Spaghetti westerns. I imagined him emulating Sergio Leone, Corbucci, and others. We don’t see any of it and instead get a weird Kurt Russell voice over that explains everything (albeit with some cool posters), serving as little more than exposition as the story jumped half a year.
Between all this, Dalton and Pussycat make it to the Spahn Ranch, finding the place filled with dozens of hippies who stare them down, led by Gypsy (Lena Dunham). The scene builds as Dalton wonders where his old buddy George is and the hippies do all they can to avoid letting him inside. This has to be one of the biggest blue ball moments in recent cinematic history as I drifted to the edge of my seat, anxious to see the Manson story start up and instead, although Tarantino couldn’t make the kids look anymore unnerved and crazed to avoid Dalton finding George, Dalton enters and finds the guy passed out in bed and just a bit confused; as though waking your grandfather from a nap. I suppose that’s the joke and the reality, but it just tanked the scene.
Dalton returns a year later, now married to Francesca Capucci (Lorenza Izzo), serving as a type of pre-modern hot woman who screams and yells, all without speaking a word of English.
Even with all this seeming success and after being offered a lead in a new series, Dalton then fires Cliff, saying he can’t afford him, having to care for his wife and all. The two decide to have one last night of drinking and return to Dalton’s place where Cliff pulls out an acid dipped cigarette and goes to walk the dog and light it up while Dalton makes some more margaritas and practices his lines in the pool; all while his wife sleeps.
Cliff sees some hippies dressed in black trying to get into Polanski’s place and scares them off, but they only then park down the street, with the teenagers offering some cringe-heavy lines about killing, as though written by a fourteen year old emulating Tarantino. They then decide to go and try and kill Dalton and Cliff instead. They head up, Cliff starts feeling the effects of the acid, and Dalton floats in his pool with headphones on, trying to memorize his lines. The hippies approach and so begins the Tarantino scene that we all wait for in each film, and while pretty fun, similar to the Spahn Ranch, fails to deliver.
It’s not Pussycat or Gypsy that leads the raid, but four hippies we don’t recognize. Dalton is then tripping on acid, but aside from his shark eye pupils and some mannerisms, there’s no visual cue as to how much he’s tripping. I was immediately thinking of Midsommar (2019) and how well it pulled off psychedelics and how well it could have worked here; not requiring some crazy visuals, but rather providing the subtle effects - light tracers, morphing backgrounds, or amplified colors. Instead, we’re just watching someone tripping on acid, battling four characters we don’t know. It’s a fun enough fight scene, but the potential for where it could have gone was just too apparent.
In the end, the hippies die and Polanski and Sharon come home after the police leave and invite Dalton over; possibly reviving his career. There have been online rumors that Tarantino is going to continue the story with a mini-series, and I do think it might be where the story’s salvaged. There was just too much more I was left wanting. Sharon Tate alone has maybe a dozen or so lines. For a powerhouse like Margot Robbie taking up the role, you can’t feel like she was shorted a classic Tarantino female role; serving as little more than a background historical figure, involved with anything else beyond being a neighbor and potential victim. Maybe this is simply the pilot of a much longer story, and if so, maybe this is one of the greatest pilots ever made. Until then, I left feeling disappointed. It was a fun world to live in and see through Tarantino’s eyes, but when I keep watching clips from Jackie Brown throughout writing this, it’s just not nearly as close to creating the engaging stories Tarantino provided with his first five films.
Tarantino has famously declared that he’s only going to make ten films, as so few directors have been able to keep making quality work beyond that. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood foreshadows what he means. It’s not a bad film, but it feels like he’s been disconnected from the rough, working class world he created. I hope he returns to crime for his last film, and I still have faith that he could make it work the way we always hope for a Tarantino film, but it feels like for a man who’s been making the creme de la creme of world cinema, his bag of tricks is running out, emulated and evolved far too much for them to keep working.
As a note, I revisited the film after a buddy said it was his favorite movie of the year and that it required repeated viewings. I understood and remained hopeful. I thought Sideways (2004) was just pretty good when I first saw it. Now it’s one of my favorite films. While the first two thirds was better than I recalled, all of the criticisms stand, and the weird time jump for the last third was all the more jarring. It felt like rather than focusing on one thing and giving it all he had, Tarantino was drawn too thin; trying to cram way too much into the story, made all the worse the worse when certain moments drag on, making me wonder why I’m focused on a meaningless conversation when I’m watching a film about the Manson murders in Hollywood.
BELOW: Best scene of the flick
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