Quentin Tarantino’s relationship with the extreme has been apparent throughout all of his past eight films. Whether it’s an adrenaline shot straight to the heart of a heroin addict, the smacks of a baseball bat as it meets Nazi skull, or a shoot out in a Southern mansion that’s eventually blown to bits by dynamite, Tarantino is always able to show his audience extreme situations and extreme emotions in unique and awe-inspiring fashion, oftentimes rewriting history and molding it in a way that few directors can. So when news released that Tarantino’s ninth film would involve the Manson murders, fans imaginations began to run wild.
What kind of twist would the director put on an event that’s already notorious for its brutality and absurdity? How is the extreme going to manifest itself in 1960’s Hollywood? The late 60s were a time of angst and novelty. It was a time that boasted “free love” but with the Vietnam war going on, it was also filled with strong emotions towards the government, towards violence, and towards those who opposed the standard. One would think that this would be a perfect era for Tarantino to put his own spin on and after seeing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I can certainly agree with that statement. But, and this is a pretty big but, it’s not the Tarantino spin that viewers have become so used to seeing.
The first 120 minutes of this movie are very different from most anything that Tarantino has done. While not completely void of tension, the film doesn’t immediately thrust its viewers into insanity and suspense. Instead, it paints a picture of what life was like in 1960’s Los Angeles, where neon lights fill every street and cigarettes are as common as chewing gum. It’s a time of bell-bottom jeans, gogo boots, aviators, dirty hippies, and really good music. This is the world that we find our two main characters, Rick Dalton (Leonardo Dicaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), attempting to traverse. Rick, the former star of a Western tv series, fears that his career may be coming to a halt as he slowly gets older and drunker. The only person that he can relay these fears to is his old friend Cliff Booth, Rick’s stunt double and a war veteran.
While Rick continues to try for roles and his fears of aging and fading away from the limelight continues to grow, Cliff finds himself serving as a caregiver. He drives Rick from set to set and meeting to meeting and takes care of Rick’s house at Cielo Drive. Rick’s next-door neighbor, actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her husband Roman Polanski are also in show business but nowhere near Rick’s level. Tate is an up and coming actress that shines with beauty and grace, Polanski is an established director that has nowhere else to go but up.
If this seems like a pretty vague plot summary, it’s because it is. Instead of a typical narrative, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is made up of small scenes that shift from character to character. Sometimes, we’ll be focusing on Rick and shown some of his acting reels, or switch to him on set and interacting with his fellow actors. At other points, we’ll follow Cliff as he drives around LA or completes simple, household tasks for Rick. Mixed into both of these perspectives is that of Sharon Tate’s. As Rick stumbles from job to job, Tate glides and sways through the sunny streets of LA. Because of the constant jumps in both time and character, the narrative may seem a bit contrived especially if someone is coming into the film with no knowledge of the Manson family, the Tate-Labianca murders, or Hollywood in the ’60s.
Essentially, the first two acts of this movie are just spent watching characters live their lives. There’s none of the extreme that Tarantino is so well known for. Instead, we’re subjected to our characters feeling much more “real.” This isn’t a knock on Tarantino’s writing at all, it’s just hard to connect with a character when they’re always written with such extreme tendencies. Rick, Cliff, Sharon, and the rest of the characters feel so much more alive in this film because they’re written with subtlety and care. They’re not these bloodthirsty, horny, detached things, they’re real people who are just trying to go about their lives and survive.
While some of this can be attributed to Tarantino’s writing, a lot of it is attributed to great performances from the main cast. Dicaprio is as Dicaprio always is, bringing 100% dedication and realism to the character of Rick Dalton. His tears feel real, his fears feel real, and his pain feels real. Margot Robbie is not given much to do as Sharon Tate, but the small parts that she does have are done remarkably. Robbie brings Tate’s sensitivity and grace to life, and it’s a gut-wrenchingly accurate depiction of a person that brought joy and love to many.
The counterpart to the eccentric Rick Dalton, Brad Pitt plays Cliff Booth to a tee as the much more confident and toned down stunt man. Oozing with confidence and swagger, Pitt manages to make Cliff feel perfectly on par with Rick even though he may not be as well known. Both men are great on their own but once they’re put together, their chemistry is contagious. The way that their friendship is portrayed is unlike any other. While they may not be equal in terms of notoriety and talent, their relationship is never portrayed as one being jealous or hateful to the other. Both men treat each other equally, there’s no one leader or sidekick. Each man has his weaknesses and his strengths, and both men respect each other for it.
If viewers want to see the Tarantino that they’re so used to, they can still find him in this movie but they’ll just have to wait a while. The third act of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is typically Tarantino, with just as much blood and violence as his past eight films. But this time, the finale feels different. This time, the viewer has to wait for it. Sadly though, you have to have some background knowledge to truly appreciate the third act. If you know nothing of Sharon Tate or the Manson family, the ending will seem like a pointless fever dream. I hate that I have to say that because I truly feel that this final act is the most satisfying while also being the most heartbreaking third act that Tarantino has done.
It satisfied me because it was the typical Tarantino that I had grown up with, the bloody, violent, and the absurd. It broke my heart because I knew that what I was watching on the screen was definitely crazy, but it was nowhere near as crazy as what truly did eventually happen to Sharon Tate, Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring, and Wojciech Frykowski. This feeling is something that I’ve never experienced before. I’ve heard the phrase “life is stranger than fiction” but I’ve never believed it until I saw Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Some will argue that this movie is too slow or that it doesn’t really tell a story, and I cannot disagree more. This is a story about friendship, it’s a story about what movies, art, people, and life were like in another time, and it’s ultimately a story about how life is indeed stranger than fiction.