ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Damon Herriman, Rafael Zawierucha, and Al Pacino. Directed by Quentin Tarantino. Rated MA 15+. Restricted. (Strong violence and coarse language). 161 min.
This American comedy-thriller is set in Los Angeles in 1969, and is a tribute to the final period of what has been called Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Writer and director, Quentin Tarantino, typically directs unique versions of stylishly-delivered violence which has characterised past films of his such as, “Reservoir Dogs” (1992), “Pulp Fiction” (1994), and “The Hateful Eight” (2015). This is an intense crime film that involves the Manson Family, a cult-group of psychopaths. In the movie, a faded and failing, alcoholic television star, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) - past his prime and worried that he is “slightly less than useless” - and his long-time stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) - his only friend - search for fame in the film industry and roam around the industry struggling to find it. Rick’s agent (Al Pacino) lands Rick a job on a western television in Los Angeles, where Rick finds himself living next door to pregnant movie actress, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her husband, Roman Polanski (Rafael Zawierucha).
Sharon Tate was murdered by the Manson family, and in this movie she is Tarantino’s vision of classic Hollywood beauty, which Robbie does in high style. To understand the movie, one needs to have some knowledge of the significance of Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) and Sharron Tate who are a major part of the story-line. The brutal and graphic murder of Sharon Tate, shocked a nation, and this film is a re-telling of the events surrounding her killing. The events put Tarantino, as Director, right in the middle of where he most wants to be - he shows killing in shocking detail, and at the same time pays homage to Hollywood’s past. Robbie projects Tate’s seductive sensuality, and Tarantino shows us the sexual favours offered by the Manson women, which he more than hints is akin to what Hollywood is now doing in other ways.
The film is a violent period piece made with rigorous discipline and obsessive commitment to what Hollywood has stood for. It is bravura film-making that moves with a pace that veers the film towards the horror genre, with its expected display of cruelty. The film’s finale is violent mayhem, cleverly staged, and completely provocative. The ending shows full-on Tarantino directing according to his personal fantasies. He makes fantasy the name of his game, and the movie is his version of payback to the Manson family for what it did to Sharon Tate.
The film is full of references to fake and real television and movies, accompanied by a mix of their musical soundtracks. The vitality of the mix is outstanding. There is subtle irony in DiCaprio and Pitt playing two characters who work extremely well together, but who are the opposite of who they are in real life. Both DiCaprio and Pitt are in their prime, ageing but still popular, and very bankable as movie stars. They acquit themselves admirably in this movie, playing two characters who are afraid of being has-beens, but they are always on display. Robbie is hampered by sparse dialogue in a limited role that takes place before things get really rough.
The characters in this film raise genuine questions about the nature of fame, and the price of failure. The film pushes us to ask: “Where does fantasy stop, and reality step in, and what has the Golden Age of Hollywood achieved? For Tarantino, fame and violence are intimately connected. Hollywood may want to kill, he tells us, but it has to dazzle in its attempt. Tarantino chooses real-life gruesome events, and distorts them in a fantastic, creative way, to convey the dazzle.
The film is a multi-layered, virtuoso piece of cinema by a highly talented Director. Tarantino is obsessed with violence, and always has been, and he directs a movie that is unlikely to have general appeal. This is a film that builds up strength in its tension and imagery, and it never lets go of the fertile imagination of Quentin Tarantino who remains busily at work, creatively mixing real life, fantasy, aggression, and art. Viewers should wait for the final credits which give a wonderfully humorous parody of Hollywood’s altogether unsubtle attempt at commercial marketing.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate, Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released August 15, 2019