The ninth and latest movie by director Quentin Tarantino is an homage to the late 60s and the final days of Hollywood’s golden age. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood revolves around a trio of characters as they try to make their way in the movie business. I expect most readers to be familiar with Tarantino’s style: violence, grotesque humor and an uncanny ability to integrate popular culture and myths. With Once Upon a Time in Hollywood the director may well have succeeded in dialing every setting to 10. Yes the movie is too long, they almost all are. Yes there are long scenes filled with useless exposition, yet the character portrayals are undeniably strong
Rick, Cliff and Sharon
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood focuses on three main character whose lives occasionally intersect. The first two are friends and colleagues Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (played by Brad Pitt). Rick is a movie actor whose career is waning while Cliff is his stunt double. Rick is supremely conscious that he was popular just a few years back while Cliff appears to take life as it comes. For the most part neither Rick nor Cliff have much important to do, this movie is about their tribulations in Hollywood. Yet it is no less entertaining for that matter. The final character is that of Sharon Tate, the real world Hollywood actress married to director Roman Polanski. Tate and Polanski start to live next door to Rick who smells an opportunity to star in a Polanski movie. Tate’s time is spent dealing with her nascent career and fending off her admirers. Margot Robbie’s performance is excellent and the portrayal no less suspenseful as the viewer does not know how the director intends to handle her tragic murder.
Side characters in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Besides the three principal characters the movie sports an incredible list of supporting actors. Each plays a unique and memorable character. In fact there are so many it makes this movie feel like a series of chapters where each can be viewed on their own. The most memorable roles go to Mike Moh as Bruce Lee. Mike plays the character to heart but the viewer suspicion he lampooning the character are never truly confirmed. Al Pacino plays movie producer Marvin Schwarz who is amalgamate of people from the golden age. The portrayal at times may be too much, but the suspicion is that it is close to truth. Al Pacino himself was at the time just starting to become a mainstream actor. The final roles which is worth mentioning is that of Pussycat played by Margaret Qualley. Pussycat is one of Charles Manson’s followers. While she may not have the murderous intent as the rest of his followers she does drag the story slowly into the darkside.
Pussycat introduces herself to Cliff as just another hitchhiking girl. The second time they meet he gives her a ride to the ranch where the Manson family is staying. Her character starts of as little more than a slut, one step down from Lee in Death Proof and Mia from Pulp Fiction. However as the drive-over develops we start to see more of her circumstance. She is partly unwashed, certainly not of age, has no identity papers and needs to forage in dumpsters for food. With her Cliff and the viewer ends up at the Manson family. Despite Tarantino’s obvious love for the time period the movie inextricably moves to the final act. For the uninitiate this would mean the murder of Sharon Tate, but the director has made his own spin on that. It means the director can avoid a painful moment I don’t think anyone wanted to see. Yet the twist in the final act still kills of the 60s much like the murder committed by the Manson Family had done in real life.
What’s the point
There is a point that needs to be made in order to fully review Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. What exactly is the point of this film? It is not about Sharon Tate’s murder, or even the Manson family. The first event does not happen in the fictional retelling of that dreadful night. And the Manson family does not feature prominently enough. Few characters except Cliff have any meaningful interaction with them.
Hollywood meets Pulp Fiction
This movie feels a lot like Pulp Fiction. And as that title suggests it is not about the plot necessarily. Instead it is about the characters and their setting. Every scene is special, with perfect character dialogue that imbues drama, humor and nail-biting suspense. Some may ask how such a movie could work? The audience does not know that director Quentin Tarantino intended to spin the night of the Tate murder into something else. The consequence is that the viewer remains engrossed with the hope it will unfold differently than it really did. Quentin, you cheated!