This is not a review. The intention of “Debated Films” is to shed light on different perspectives over contentious movies to determine if it deserves praise or criticism. These will be previously released films, so be aware there will be spoilers. If you haven’t seen this film, you may want to before reading this piece.
For nearly 30 years, Quentin Tarantino has been one of the most iconic voices in cinema. Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese or David Fincher are just as prolific, but Tarantino is the only living director who fills seats based on his name alone. His films are classified as arthouse cinema, yet they get blockbuster attention. With so many eyes on his work, discussions rage over his use of brutal violence, overwritten dialogue, deliberately slow pacing and risqué content. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019) knowingly flips a middle finger to his detractors by dialling his traits to 11. Despite this, it’s still his most understated work since Jackie Brown (1997) and most thought-provocative since Pulp Fiction (1994).
Set in 1969 Hollywood, the story centres on a fictional actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo Di Caprio) and his mysterious stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). They live, hang out and work in Hollywood, trying to break into mainstream movies. Rick lives on Cielo Drive, meaning his neighbours are the real life figures, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). For Rick, this is a constant reminder of career success just out of reach. For all those history buffs out there, Sharon Tate’s involvement obviously means Charles Manson and the Manson Family are around. Consequently, there’s a slow build up to Miss Tate’s eventual murder. However, this is Tarantino, so revisionist history is going down. The result left audiences with their jaws on the ground. Some were delighted and some were horrified or confused.
The main criticism lobbied at Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is that ‘nothing happened’ until the explosively violent finish. Granted, the film plays hard to get for most of the runtime, but it’s not without thematic purpose. Similar to Jackie Brown, it has faith in the viewer’s attention span, trusting the resolution will make everything clear. It’s not about the story or plot, as Hollywood wants us to think about our cultural history. The key to understanding the film’s point is the “Once Upon A Time” part of the title, which isn’t there by accident. Tarantino has taken a piece of history and created a fairytale out of it. He takes a moment in time where the cultural world transformed from an innocent place to a dark one. The events as depicted stop the world of the film from suffering our cynical fate.
The Sharon Tate murders are synonymous with the end of Hollywood’s innocence. The murders started societal shift, causing people to be afraid, mistrusting and depressive. This was reflected in how pessimistic 1970s cinema became, as nihilistic classics like The French Connection (1971), A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Godfather (1972) and Polanski’s own Chinatown (1974) filled cinemas. To restore optimism, Tarantino punishes Tex Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel and Susan Atkins, the three directly responisible for the Tate murders. Rick and Cliff are working class B-movie stars, which is the kind Tarantino has always hero-worshipped in his films. By preventing the murders, Tarantino’s idealised movie stars are awarded with mainstream success the real world never game them. With such a metaphysical point, why does the film rely entirely on its shocking final minutes? Essentially, we need to see the optimistic and unassuming world these people lived in, so we may understand what is being saved.
Think of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood as a hang-out movie, similar to American Graffiti (1973) or Dazed and Confused (1993). These are stories where seemingly nothing happens, yet ‘nothing’ is actually everything. Decoding Hollywood’s, layers depend on the audiences understanding of 1960s culture, 1960s cinema, Sharon Tate’s influence and the Manson family. Usually, films shouldn’t expect the audience to do homework. However, stopping to explain the cultural and thematic meaning of the depicted period would defeat the entire point. Just like those earlier hang-out films, Hollywood’s approach makes the audience nostalgic for a bygone era, but unlike those earlier films it helps us wonder what the world could’ve been like under different circumstances. Ironically, Tarantino’s wishful ending would’ve created a cinema landscape devoid of his own cynicism.
There’s a lot to say about the Mansons and Sharon Tate, so why wasn’t there more plot attention on those aspects? If Hollywood had its main story flesh out these elements, it would’ve become just another depressing depiction of Manson and Helter Skelter. Instead, Manson is never mentioned by name and his insane ideas never come up. Real life criminals are given a platform when depicted in films, but Tarantino rightly removes agency, power and worth from the Manson family. Unlike every other film on the subject, the Mansons are reduced to idiots and Tate is given life. She listens to music, sweetly enjoys her own movies (something she did regularly) and chills with friends. She isn’t just ‘that actress who got killed’, which is sadly the only remembered fact about her. Tarantino untethers Tate from her dark legacy, instead allowing us to see her for her. The depiction of Tate is of admiration, not exploitation.
On that note, is Tarantino touching on history in a exploitative manner? Even though the ending is revisionist, Tarantino’s use of historical details are displayed with realism and truth. Factual details like the Spahn Movie Ranch, Charles Manson’s mysterious visit to the Polanski residence and Spaghetti Westerns all fill the narrative and build the thematic complexity. Even the inclusions of Steve McQueen and Bruce Lee have purpose. Steve McQueen is a man Rick feels inadequate next to, yet McQueen displays his own similar feelings of inadequacy. Bruce Lee is an unbeatable martial artist, yet Cliff beats him. This isn’t to slight Lee, but rather to make us wonder what else Cliff is capable of (information which is useful for the finale). These little details are littered throughout, making the world feel real and adds the building blocks for the powerful finish.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is an incredibly hard film to recommend and an even harder film to explain the merits of, as people may be bored or confused. Even some Tarantino fans may be disappointed if they’re expecting a fable like Django Unchained (2012) or a twisted action-epic like Kill Bill (2003-2004). Despite the niche appeal, Once Upon A Time Hollywood justifies its unconventional structure and minimalist storytelling with purposeful thematic layers and artful construction. Additionally, there’s something fascinating about a filmmaker looking at the past and wishing for a better history. As a work of self-reflection and cultural wish fulfilment, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood strikes the right nerves and is arguably a work of genius.
Best way to watch it: In a retro-cinema.