Cannes 2019: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Review
Since Inglourious Basterds revised history by killing Hitler long before he entered his Berlin bunker, Quentin Tarantino’s films have quickly pivoted to adding a cathartic revisionism to history’s most traumatic events. By now, it’s clearly established that a Tarantino period piece will see history’s most evil people get their comeuppance, in the most violent manners imaginable - making the controversy around his latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, somewhat unexpected. Wouldn’t he continue down the same track, providing the catharsis for a real life tragedy that the history books can’t?
If his recent films have subverted our narrow minded narrative expectations of historical dramas, then Once Upon a Time in Hollywood goes one better: it subverts the very idea of what we expect from a late period Quentin Tarantino film. Those expecting blood curdling violence as Tarantino gets retroactive revenge on the Manson family will be left baffled, as the director has made his least violent film since Jackie Brown, and is as unshackled from plot as he’s ever been - it’s a laid back hangout movie when all signs would suggest one of his most problematic to date.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt star respectively as Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth, two men struggling to maintain their places in Hollywood as relics from a previous era. Rick is a former TV star who gambled his successful career on becoming a movie star, headlining a string of flops that has left him relegated to bit part status on TV. Cliff is Rick’s stuntman, and has become something of a pariah in the industry, due to the persistent rumours that he murdered his own wife. Rick has been offered a tantalising career in Italy, headlining Spaghetti Westerns, but his ego is shot down after coming to the realisation he’s now a has been. Over the course of seven months, we see how their careers change, as one era of Hollywood comes to a brutal end.
If the film won’t inspire breathless think pieces on its handling of Sharon Tate’s story, something of an afterthought in this sprawling Hollywood odyssey, then it will surely be the subject of debate when it comes to Pitt’s character. Brad Pitt delivers the stand out performance in the film, channeling his performance from earlier Tarantino project (albeit one directed by Tony Scott) True Romance, but with a much darker undercurrent to the zonked-out caricature of that earlier film. Tarantino doesn’t shy away from problematic characters, but Cliff Booth represents a new challenge entirely, with his redemptive arc likely to cause even more concern that the crime for which he has been repeatedly accused - it’s thanks to Pitt’s under appreciated gift for comic timing and all round movie star charisma that he steals the show every second he appears.
If there are flaws with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it’s that it feels somewhat slight in comparison to his recent efforts; undeniably entertaining, but more a series of entertaining sequences than a cohesive multi stranded narrative of the kind the director is synonymous with. Many have already compared it to Pulp Fiction, but there isn’t a multitude of engaging, overlapping stories here - the film unfolds in a linear order, with very little explored outside of Rick Dalton’s time on film sets and Cliff Booth’s day job running Rick’s errands. Take the character of Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie, who mostly exists as both a red herring for how Tarantino will depict the infamous murders, and as an excuse for the director to once again demonstrate his foot fetish, the actress showing her feet more times than she has to recite lines of dialogue. We briefly glimpse Hollywood royalty, from Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen to Mike Moh’s scene stealing cameo as Bruce Lee, but they don’t factor into a story outside of providing amusing asides. For someone who plots his narratives as tightly as Tarantino, on a first viewing, it’s slightly jarring just how thinly plotted and loosely paced the film is, snapshots of a day in the life of the rich and famous that don’t add up to a fully realised story.
But look past this, and there is something quietly (and very surprisingly) moving about Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, and how it depicts two men out of time, caught in a transitional period between two cinematic eras to which they don’t belong. You could even argue that the film acts as a surprisingly subtle commentary on the director’s own place in contemporary Hollywood; reminiscing of golden eras of boldly original American cinema, while other directors are either disappearing to streaming or anonymous franchise behemoths. Sure, the period setting allows the director to geek out and casually toss out references to largely forgotten TV serials, classic westerns and (more than a decade prior to its production) even a surprise visual gag nodding to the subway scene in Andrzej Żuławski’s Posession. But it’s the rare instance of his love for long forgotten pop culture being justified by the film itself, the director admitting his affinity for the very things that have led the characters to become relics in the entertainment industry of that era.