By Adam Ray Palmer
It’s been a long four years… and now the big man is back once again. In fact, this is the ninth (and final, apparently) outing for the talented Quentin Tarantino.
Following the underwhelming The Hateful Eight, QT brings the world a powerful tale in Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood.
Every time a Tarantino picture is released, it’s a must-see, opening night, on the big screen. I did it with Inglorious, Django and Hateful Eight – but I couldn’t have been more excited for a movie by this man. He seems to have the strongest aura in cinema in recent years, largely down to controversy that always follows his violent productions – but he also has stacks of hardcore fans. It’s the latter that I am more in tune with, and I am pretty sure he will turn some haters into lovers with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Set in 1969, the film focuses on three protagonists with narratives that entwine over a six-month period. You have two fictional characters; one being Rick Dalton played by the effortlessly pristine Leonardo DiCaprio and the other being Cliff Booth played by the charismatic giant Brad Pitt, and then you have the famously ill-fated bombshell Sharon Tate played by the consistently faultless, Margot Robbie.
We first meet Rick Dalton on the set of his hugely popular Western TV show, Bounty Laws, of which he has just sacked off to go and be a movie star. What follows is only guest part appearances as the villain, inevitably getting beaten up, in other people’s shows. Cliff Booth follows Dalton around as his stunt double (and general dogsbody), but constantly gets knocked back for the big pay jobs as his murky past keeps cropping up. So, naturally, he becomes Dalton’s odd-job man fixing his TV aerial and being his chauffer amongst other things.
Whilst following this pair of has-beens, we also meet the up and coming starlet Sharon Tate. She has just married the best director of the time, Roman Polanski, and has a glitzy career beckoning. She realises her impending stardom as she sits down in a theatre to watch herself on the big screen with a few cinemagoers. Laughter and smiles are in abundance as she feels the flattery for the first time. This scene is such an innocent portrayal of a person comprehending their achievements, but us, the audience, just see it as a powerful tear-jerking moment that Sharon Tate never really had her chance.
From this sequence alone, Tarantino has stepped up a gear with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in terms of emotion and sensitivity. This isn’t like any other picture he has done before. Yes, it has an essence of Pulp Fiction, but for large parts of this film it’s so compassionate. In another scene with Leo talking the trials and tribulations of life with an eye-catching performance from 10-year-old Julia Butters, you see the sensitivity of what caged and pressured Hollywood lifestyles can do to a star. DiCaprio is a marvel as the stammered, slightly aging and blue-eyed heartthrob Dalton; he has multiple moments throughout the movie that are just Oscar-nominating-worthy alone. His scene with Timothy Olyphant’s James Stacey is pure genius from Tarantino. We watch on as an inception type sequence plays out as we see both Leo and Timothy play characters who are playing characters. It’s fascinating and addictive in equal measure.
Whilst all this is occurring, Cliff Booth is off driving around Los Angeles doing the errands. QT positions the camera a lot of the time in the back of all the cars we see on screen giving the sense that we are being driven, and more importantly, that we are not in control. Just as you feel uneasy, we are introduced to a scene-stealing performance by Margaret Qualley as "Pussycat" – a member of the Charles Manson cult. Her uncomfortable and perturbed being is enough to make you recoil into a foetus position. She invites the steely Cliff to their ranch, once a movie set, to meet the ‘family’. He agrees as he knows the old owner, but things are not as they seem of course. Once arrived, he quickly learns the possessive nature of the gang and retreats once knowing his friend George (Bruce Dern) is alive and ‘well’.
What unfolds from this point is literally a countdown to the overhanging, horrific fate that we all know is looming on Cielo Drive. This wouldn’t be a Tarantino movie without some over the top violence, and he delivers here. This is probably his most vicious and shocking violence to date, and that’s saying something. The climax to the film arrives and the blows are certainly to your gut. It’s sort of a ‘looking through your fingers’ type of culmination.
And when the dust settles as the credit rolls, you can’t help but think you have just watched a three-hour masterpiece. I perhaps have a ‘just seen it’ bias cap on, but this is certainly in his top three movies. It’s so much more than the trailer suggests. Yes, it has some uproarious moments in it, and yes Cliff’s dog is an absolutely beauty – but on the whole, the film is dedicated to the stunning Sharon Tate. It’s effectively a eulogy to her, and to a Hollywood that once was before that evening. It’s a film about grief and loss, in whatever form your mind wants you to see it. Whether it be a person, a career or a popular TV show; it will hit you for six and make you question a lot about the world. Tarantino has done it again and made a classic – get me another ticket for a second run.
Cineroom’s rating: 5 stars
Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood is now out in cinemas worldwide – certificate 18.