Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is his ninth film and it seems to be his most personal film to the industry, itself. He has publicly said in interviews that this is his “love letter” to the industry. I will take his word for it. The film takes place in 1969 with the backdrop of the Manson killings looming in the background. I knew this going into the theater and was very interested in how the story would be told.
Brad Pitt plays Cliff Booth, a Hollywood stuntman for Rick Dalton played with pained energy by Leonardo DiCaprio. In reality, Cliff Booth is based on Hal Needham, a legendary stuntman for Burt Reynolds who the DiCaprio character, Rick Dalton is based on. In true Tarantino fashion, reality is based in an alternate reality. There are true elements to his story but details have been changed along with some of the timeline. I didn’t care. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood may play loosey-goosey with history but it is still a fascinating film to behold.
Tarantino has stated it took him five years of writing to get the script to where he wanted it to be. It is written with great care about characters that are extremely well understood by the performers that play them. The character I connected most with was Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Hollywood is changing and Booth understands that. He seems content that his days are behind him and he has moved on with life. He has the scars of a stuntman who has paid his dues. He is not bitter nor has he lost his moral code as we see in a scene in which Booth insists on checking up on a friend that may or may not be in serious trouble.
Rick Dalton, however, is a different ball of wax. He, too, knows that the times are a-changin’ and he is being left behind. Dalton has taken to drinking heavily and struggles with his confidence on a daily basis. He longs for the older days in which everyone knew who he was. Those days are fading. But together, Dalton and Booth are lifelong friends and they help each other get through just about anything. They have some great dialogue to work from as there are a lot of laughs to enjoy.
Margot Robbie plays the ill-fated Sharon Tate and a lot of people have complained that she does not have a lot to do in this film. I disagree. Her role is perfectly sized within the context of this film and although she does not have that many actual lines of dialogue, she knows exactly how to play her character and Tarantino knows exactly how to position her character throughout the film and she is lovely in every scene she is in.
There is very little that goes wrong in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as a film. This is an elegant homage to a bygone era. Hippies, rock and roll, drug fueled sex, Charles Manson and mini-skirts had overtaken Leave it to Beaver and the Andy Griffith Show. Tarantino acknowledges that not all of the changes were for the better but the look and the feel of his direction shows he can tone down the stylized violence of his previous films and tell a simple story. That is not to say you won’t have some blood curdling violence as you will see in the climax. But he has pulled back on some of his staples in the past and the film is all the better for it, too.
Some people looking for all of the sound and fury of Tarantino’s previous films will probably be disappointed. I am not one of them. All of the elements are here. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has terrific cinematography, a rocking soundtrack and performances that are superb, in addition to the writing and directing. I look for Brad Pitt to be nominated for his performance because he is that good in this film. This is a special film handled with great care by a master of writing and directing. Tarantino knows exactly the story he wants to tell and does it with grace and style. That is what a love letter should be.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – ****1/2 out of 5
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – Rated R for language, sexual situations and graphic violence
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – Run time is 161 minutes. There is a bonus scene halfway through the end credits and a bonus scene at the very end of the final credits so stay in your seat.