Film review: Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2/5)
Aside from the slight dip in quality that was Death Proof in 2007 (half of the collaborative ‘Grindhouse’ feature with Robert Rodriguez) Quentin Tarantino’s career has been a series of critically acclaimed films.
Dipping into various genres (crime, pulp, war, martial arts and western amongst others) he married his passion for movies to his talent for writing, character building and unusual use of editing, music and cinematography.
Death Proof’s problem was that, after a solid first half, it slid into over indulgence. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood shares that same flaw which renders it as possibly the beginning of a career decline.
There was always the chance this would happen. Every director reaches their zenith, the film that is a culmination of everything they have to offer. The Hateful Eight, which was Tarantino’s eighth film, arguably his best, was certainly his peak.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood can’t hold a candle to it. In fact, the only Tarantino film it can be compared to is Inglorious Basterds and that is because it shares the same sort of ending: a revenge fantasy based on changing historical facts.
Just as Brad Pitt leads a team of Americans to gun down Hitler in Inglorious Basterds, here he almost singlehandedly takes down Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Tex Watson, three of Charles Manson’s murderous stooges, thereby ending their roaring rampage before it began.
It is a moment the audience – provided they are familiar with the Manson murders – are most likely meant to cheer, but, while it may be satisfying to see these hippies get their just deserts it ultimately leaves a sour taste in the mouth. Tarantino’s characters, Cliff (Brad Pitt) and Rick (Leonardo DiCaprio) kick ass and save Sharon Tate who was an actual person who died in a horrific and violent attack. It seems almost disrespectful to play out this fairytale of “No, look, she’s fine! Brad and Leo saved her and they all live happily ever after.”
Also, despite the audience knowing what Atkins, Watson and Krenwinkel did do, in Tarantino’s universe they have not done it yet and so the extreme overkill (complete with death by flamethrower) all feels a bit tasteless and tacky.
However, some viewers may get behind this sort of fact-meets-fiction storytelling, and that is fine (Inglorious Basterds, despite its ending, was a great film) but there are other criticisms to make. Firstly, at 2 hours and 41 minutes, it is a long slog and time drags painfully in places, particularly when subjected to endless clips of Rick’s supposed film and TV work and when we follow him through the shooting of scenes for a villainous cowboy role, which we see almost in full though it has no bearing on the actual plot of the film.
Yes, it gives us insight to Rick’s character and his abilities as an actor, but surely there could have been a more succinct way to express these things.
The performances are all fine, with fun little cameos sprinkled here and there, but the dialogue lacks Tarantino’s usual punch and, if not for the telltale focus on feet and the characters smoking Red Apple cigarettes, it is often easy to forget just who the director is. An overuse of narration late on in the film is an irritant that hampers the finale.
It is not a terrible movie, but when watching a film proudly announced as the ‘ninth film by director Quentin Tarantino’ the bar of expectations is raised high. Possibly too high. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood has its moments: there is some humour, Pitt and Margaret Qualley manage to inject some vibrancy in their shared scenes, and the soundtrack is good. But nothing is satisfying.
There is too little of Manson and his followers. The glimpses given are intriguing but unhelpful to anyone unfamiliar with the true story. Since their path is diverted by the heroes, Sharon Tate’s presence as a character in the film is ultimately pointless. We see her, she is happy, she lives. The only reason she’s there is because we know she really was murdered, but the film doesn’t know that and so, in the end, she is superfluous.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood would work better as two separate films. One, an edgy comedy about a washed up actor and his stunt double, the other a historical piece detailing the rise of the Manson Family and the life and death of Sharon Tate. But mashed together the two do not make a palatable whole. Instead they sit like oil and water as two things that shouldn’t be mixed.
(Rated 18, 2hrs 41mins)