Flashbacks, foot fetishes, sudden outburst of violence, great yet obscure songs, characters that speak like him; love him or hate him, Quentin Tarantino is one of the most renowned directors working today and every time a movie he directs is released, there’s a buzz in the industry and his fans are brimming with excitement and anticipation. Once upon a time in Hollywood was no different, but the reception was more mixed than regular; critically – according to Rotten Tomatoes at least – the reception is as strong as ever, but fans seem really mixed on it, with some finding its 3 hour duration mostly consisting of “pointless” meandering and boring pacing of an unsurprising story.
On the surface, Once upon a time in Hollywood is the least Tarantino you would expect from a Tarantino movie; although his signature energy and flow is present, there’s more ambiguity to where it all leads. Most of the side plots feel random and purposeless; most of the scenes feel like they exist solely to make a reference to a show or movie of the era; most of the movie can be seen as a love letter to an era and nothing more; an excuse to dish out nostalgia and “old time values” without providing commentary or a new take.
However, in my view, Once upon a time in Hollywood is the most Tarantino movie he’s made so far, because without losing all the qualities that make Tarantino unique, he created his most mature and most reflective of his own character movie. This movie is, at its most basic form, a simple drama about two characters out of time; the actor/stuntman duo of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth, once A-list stars of Bounty Law (the movie’s version of Wanted: Dead or Alive) are now remnants of a soon-to-be-gone era of Hollywood, stubbornly trying to hold on to any fame or status they have left, while simultaneously using their “old ways” to regain their bygone status. On the flipside, we have Sharron Tate who is a star in the making, happily married to one of the most sought-after directors in Hollywood, enjoying her life, success, and existence in an era that suits her. Every beat this type of drama must hit is there, but done in the most Tarantino way possible: How do you show how close Rick Dalton was to becoming a movie star? Show him on set, dressed up as this over-the-top bad guy for the pilot of Lancer recalling the time he almost got the lead role for The Great Escape; How do you show Rick is cynical towards his craft, but also has hidden range? Show him doing half-assed work on popular shows of the time, get schooled by a kid on Lancer, fumble his lines because he’s basically an alcoholic, have an awesome scene where DiCaprio shows his amazing range as an actor, and then redeem Rick Dalton with “the best acting I’ve ever seen”.
There’s a lot more examples I could give regarding Rick, Cliff, and Sharron Tate, but there’s no reason to (and that’s not even speaking about the incredibly strong performances by DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie in those roles); this movie is great not despite of its issues, but because of them. The meandering and supposed randomness of its scenes, the stop and start pacing and character development, the “roundabout” writing, the obscure references; these are the reasons I love this movie and only Tarantino would make these relevant, interesting, and essential to a story. He wrote this simple drama about fictional characters set in this historical period alongside real events and married everything that makes him unique as a director with everything that makes him “geek out” as a person. When he says that this is his “most personal” screenplay, a lot will make the assumption that he’s talking about identifying or sharing attributes with the characters; for me, this is his most personal work yet, because it feels like what a conversation with Tarantino would probably be like. It would start with a clear intention, but with each geeky detail and each obscure reference, it would morph into a 3 hour long love letter. But, this is just focusing on a few aspects of the movie; even disregarding the beautiful cinematography, the flawless set design, the impeccable score and musical choices, just focusing on the writing and performances, Once upon a time in Hollywood is one of the strongest conversation-starters of recent memory.
To some, Once upon a time in Hollywood will seem like a distracted, unfocused, and boring movie; to me, it’s a breath of fresh air and maturity in Tarantino’s filmology, as well as an injection of originality to the movie industry.