‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ isn’t standard Tarantino — and that’s great
October 8, 2019
This piece includes spoilers for the movie “Once Upon a Time In Hollywood.”
TW: physical and sexual violence against women
Quentin Tarantino has made it clear that he only plans to direct 10 films before retiring. For those of us keeping track, he released his ninth film this summer. And for the most part, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is the ideal penultimate film for the director. More than anything else, the film is a love letter to both a bygone era and film itself — a perfect project for a cinephile who realizes his remaining years as a pop culture powerhouse are numbered.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” follows washed-up Western star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he deals with his declining career, existential dread and being out-acted by a child. At Dalton’s side is his stunt double and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), whose very different challenges include repairing a TV antenna, sparring with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) and fighting the Manson Family. On top of all this, living next door to Dalton are up-and-coming celebrity couple Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha). While Dalton and Booth struggle to remain relevant in a rapidly changing industry, the Manson Family plots to murder Tate. That’s a lot of information for one paragraph and might suggest the film has a fast-paced, intricate plot. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
With a 2-hour, 40-minute runtime and fewer stylish action sequences that characterize Tarantino’s other projects, this film is arguably the director’s slowest. But in this case, slowness is a benefit. Tarantino’s goal is not to tell an action-packed story, but to immerse audiences in another era. In this sense, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is not like many of the director’s previous films — so if you’re expecting something like “Django Unchained” or “Kill Bill: Volume 1,” you’ll probably be disappointed. But if you’re open to something different, get ready for a fun, meandering ride through hippie-era Hollywood. With its beautiful cinematography, a perfectly fitting soundtrack, and a plethora of period-appropriate film references, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” does exactly what it sets out to do. And the combination of a hilarious script and the undeniable chemistry between DiCaprio and Pitt makes this film the type of buddy comedy that only Tarantino could create.
But while it achieves its main goal, the film isn’t perfect. In the film’s thrilling finale — which provides Tarantino fans with the over-the-top violence they expect from the director — the audience has to watch Cliff Booth ruthlessly beat up a teenage girl. Although this girl is a member of the Manson Family, the scene is uncomfortable to watch. This sort of stylized violence against women has no place in a film made in 2019.
Tarantino’s poor treatment of female characters doesn’t end there. In a film about Hollywood set against the backdrop of the Manson murders, Sharon Tate’s presence is shockingly insignificant. This decision not only detracts from the film’s Manson-murder story arc, but also deprives Margot Robbie of a chance to fully showcase her acting abilities. Furthermore, Tarantino’s portrayal of Roman Polanski, a convicted sexual predator, is far too sympathetic. Coming from a director who has drawn concern over his treatment of women — both his characters and the actresses playing them — these directorial choices are disappointing, but not surprising.
Despite its problems, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” might be the best possible penultimate film for Tarantino. This is not to say it’s his magnum opus. Rather, the film illustrates that Tarantino is entering the end of his directing career with grace. His earnest, nostalgic ode to an earlier time reveals that he knows his directing years are almost over and that he has no desire to fight that. And while longtime Tarantino fans may be saddened by the director’s impending retirement, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” leaves them excited for what he says will be his final film. Let’s just hope it’s not “Star Trek.”