Having crafted a name for himself in the 90’s, taken that name into every household in the 2000’s and elevated it to cinema’s equivalent of legendary status in the current decade, Tarantino returns with his most mature picture yet. It’s sharp, it’s witty, and it has something to say. He gets the best out of his two fabulous leads and tells the tale of Los Angeles in 1969, as seen from the Hollywood Hills.
Following the release of what many consider to be his worst movie, the divisive Hateful Eight (2015), Tarantino returns to the screens with what many will argue is his best yet. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is a wonderful celebration of all things Classical Hollywood. Highlighting the many aspects that made such an era equally wonderful and terrible whilst also making reference to the cultural changes that would unravel its grip on mainstream, affordable entertainment and subsequently usher in a new form of edgier and more youth oriented media. This era of movie making was Tarantino’s main inspiration, and where you can find the origins of a lot of techniques Tarantino has popularised in mainstream cinema today. Thus Once Upon a Time acts as Tarantino’s love letter to his own muses and a comical representation of where such ideas came from.
Taking place mostly over a single day, Once Upon a Time follows ageing actor Rick Dalton, portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio and his equally ageing stunt double Cliff Booth, portrayed by Brad Pitt. Dalton is going through a mid-life crisis as his hit show “Bounty Law” has ended and his glory days are behind him. Now settling for a life as a “heavy” (antagonist) in TV serials, Dalton dreams of the days when he was the leading man. Booth on the other hand is much more accepting of his current arrangement which has developed from Dalton’s stuntman to Dalton’s driver and PA. The chemistry between the two characters is effortless and quintessential Tarantino, wonderfully highlighting his snappy writing style that was inspired by movies of this generation.
It is difficult to discuss the plot of Once Upon a Time without revealing too much about what happens throughout. This is a film that absolutely deserves you go in knowing as little as possible about the story. It is one of the few films in which I would overtly applaud the marketing campaign for keeping the details of the plot under wraps. This isn’t a great mystery, or a thriller with twists and turns a plenty. It is a celebratory experience that those who love Tarantino’s style or the era in which he draws his inspiration from, will absolutely adore. The jokes are spot on, the dialogue is fantastic and the performances are showcases of the actors talents as well as Tarantino’s already proven directorial capabilities. Tarantino knew what everyone was expecting from the plot of this film. Without giving it away he knew exactly how to utilise that expectation and how to subvert what you think you are going to see.
Long term collaborator of Tarantino’s, Robert Richardson returns as the cinematographer for Once Upon a Time and outdoes what we have come to expect visually from a Tarantino picture. Mainstay tropes of Tarantino’s style are here but experimenting with classical methods of cinematography, typical of the era, blend wonderfully with the action on screen and the audience’s preconceived notions of a film coming from a director of this pedigree. This is without a doubt the most visually pleasing film to watch in all of Tarantino’s backlog. That is not to say it is world’s better than what has come before but it does show a development in his own understanding of the “Tarantino” style.
Going hand in hand with the visuals is the soundtrack, something else Tarantino is consistently famous for. He does not drop the ball here with hit songs from the era making up the majority of the soundtrack as well as some classical movie scores to supplement the world building of the Hollywood in 1969. It isn’t the best soundtrack of his career but it definitely does fit the era and setting very well.
Once Upon a Time serves as an excellent indicator of Tarantino’s current development as a filmmaker. Becoming one of the fastest rising stars of the 90’s indie scene with snappy dialogue and memorable characters, Tarantino quickly altered his course from witty character driven crime dramas to exploitation style action cinema flicks beginning with Kill Bill (2003) and ending with Django Unchained (2012). The Hateful Eight split audiences for multiple reasons but chief among them in my opinion was Tarantino’s style was beginning to overtake his substance. Pulp Fiction (1994) is a character driven, non-linear, crime drama masterpiece with such a weighty substance to it that the style simply accentuates the bombastic nature of the character’s lives. The Hateful Eight on the other hand lacks the depth of its predecessors and instead simply runs through all of the Tarantino tropes resulting in his most indulgent film of his career. Auteurs like Tarantino are required to hold themselves to a higher standard in order to save their films from becoming predictable cash ins.
Once Upon a Time, I believe, is Tarantino’s own understanding of his style, crafted and implemented in such a way so as to not bash you over the head with his tropes but instead to graciously weave them in throughout, culminating in a typically explosive finale. It is in my opinion the most mature film of his career, not because of its themes, setting or subject matter, but instead because it serves as an example of his own maturity as an artist. I do believe he has become aware (if he wasn’t already) of his own star power, and his use of such power is so wonderfully executed in this film, it is difficult to argue that it isn’t his best yet.
Divisive as its ending may be, few can debate the cinematic gem Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is. A strong outing from Tarantino that shows he hasn’t dropped the ball or been completely absorbed by his own stylistic image. One of the most written about directors of the last three decades has barely put a foot wrong throughout that career and he puts another one right here. You owe it to yourself to go and see it. It’s the new Tarantino picture, and it doesn’t disappoint.
Written by Alfie Smith
All images courtesy of Sony Pictures.