Published Jul 23, 2019If there are two things Quentin Tarantino loves, it's blood splatters and meta commentary on the film industry. His early classics Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction cleverly subverted the gangster genre amidst torture scenes and Bible-quoting executions; Grindhouse was a killer tribute to wacky B-movies; Kill Bill spoofed samurai sword fights, and so on.
Tarantino gives his obsessions free reign in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Set in 1969 against the backdrop of the Manson Family, it follows Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a prima donna western star, and his best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick's career is on the wane, and much of the movie shows him bouncing from gig to gig at the behest of his agent Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino), struggling with lines and throwing tantrums in his trailer.
Meanwhile, he just moved in next door to director Roman Polanski and his actress wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). In contrast to Rick, Sharon's career is on the rise, and she spends a chunk of the film watching herself in a theatre and laughing at her own punchlines.
Tarantino goes a little overboard with meta cleverness: too much of the two-and-a-half-hour runtime is devoted movies-within-movies, as Rick spends a lot of time in costume as an Old West bad guy. As with any Tarantino flick, the digressions are part of the fun, but we didn't need quite this many scenes from non-existent westerns.
It's when the characters are off the lot that things really spice up: Cliff meets a flirtatious young hippie named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), and she hitchhikes a ride back to her commune in the Hills. She turns out to be a member of the Manson Family, and even though "Charlie" isn't home when they drop by, his absence hangs sinisterly over the scene.
Cliff is a loyal friend with a dark past, and there's an undercurrent of menace to his laid-back charm. Brad Pitt captures this masterfully, and he remains charismatic in spite of some sketchy behaviour. His character's dual nature is mirrored by his dog Brandy — a cute pit bull with clipped ears and a vicious bite.
So even though most of the film is about campy westerns, sunny L.A. vistas and psychedelic song placements, there's always the threat of imminent violence. Amidst the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, there's danger lurking in the Hills. When the blood finally comes, it's among the most gruesome things Tarantino has ever committed to film — and that's saying something.
Anyone who has seen Inglourious Basterds knows that Tarantino's approach to history is more about fantasy than reality, so don't expect this to be a fact-based retelling of the Manson murders. True crime is all the rage these days, but Tarantino goes well outside of the bounds of what could be considered "true." Turning real-life tragedy into a glitzy caper is morally murky, but undeniably entertaining. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood isn't quite peak Quentin, but it is quintessential Quentin — full of ugliness, but still beautiful to behold.