Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood: a spoiler-filled discussion

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With spoilers and lots of them, Dan Cooper explores Quentin Tarantino’s new film.

Warning: this review contains spoilers for Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and previous Tarantino films!

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood marks director Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film since he blazed onto the scene in the early nineties with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, a pair of films that shifted cinema’s terms of engagement, spawned countless imitators and birthed a directorial legend. I use the term ‘legend’ not to bestow any form of cinematic immortality upon Tarantino but rather as a reminder that the movies that make up his oeuvre live perpetually in the shadow of their creator. Throughout his filmography, from the self-aggrandising title credits to the (sometimes self-serving) cameos, Tarantino has made it impossible throughout the last two decades to separate the art from the artist. 

Of course, this process has often been underlined by Tarantino’s tendency to embellish his own mythology, ‘the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino’ being an example, a continual reminder that the Legend of Tarantino states that there will be only ten films to define his career. As a result, we, the audience accept and understand that we are experiencing a finite body of work, that we are in the hands of an auteur with finite things to say, therefore bestowing greater importance on the things that are said, imbuing them with them with the same sense of significance that their creator is said to possess.

Hollywood myths

From the outset, Once Upon a Time seeks to further gild this mythology. From the mythic-sounding title prefix to Tarantino’s pre-release remarks that his tenth and final film will serve only as an epilogue of sorts to his career, everything points to this movie as being his magnum opus, the great work by which he would like to be remembered. Unlike say, Reservoir Dogs, which reportedly popped into his head during the writing of Pulp Fiction, this is a film he has wanted to make for a long time, perhaps because its central idea is more relevant to him as a filmmaker than any of his previous material. 

Fading Hollywood actor Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is coming to terms with the fact that his best days are firmly in the rear-view mirror. It’s 1969 and both Hollywood as an industry and the wider world at large are quickly becoming unrecognisable to Rick, as television contemporaries of his, such as Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood have successfully made the transition from the small screen to the silver one. Rick meanwhile, is languishing in a sort of limbo, his star status no longer enough to secure him much more than ‘heavy of the week’ spots on aspiring TV pilots, whilst his own insecurities and skewed self-perception prevent him from the sort of wholesale artistic metamorphosis that might see him reborn as ‘real actor’ in the blooming creative ‘New Hollywood’ era that is blossoming as the film takes place.

The perfect setup?

Wherever your opinion falls regarding Tarantino’s output, there’s no doubt that that he’s a master when it comes to constructing an artful conceit, and Once Upon a Time’s may be his very best. Not only does the setup allow for a thoughtful character study of a man who finds himself out of step with the world around him, it also acts as an examination of one of the most fascinating eras of Hollywood (and American) history as a counter-cultural movement clashed with  an established order, each painting the other as an social threat that must be undermined and overcome. From flower girl Pussycat’s assertion that actors, the idols of the previous generation, are ‘phoney’ to Rick’s reductive rejection of the flower children as ‘Fucking hippies’, social upheaval is in the air, and it undoubtedly makes for good drama. 

Furthermore, what makes the conceit especially delicious is that Tarantino knowingly serves it up as a commentary on his own career as a filmmaker. Like DiCaprio’s Dalton, Tarantino has proved throughout his filmography that he is unwilling or unable to change or adapt to the shifting trends of cinema, preferring instead to lean into and amplify the elements of his work which garner criticism or controversy. 

For example, when lambasted about a failure to engage with deeper messages about the impact of violence in his films, he made Inglorious Basterds and slaughtered Hitler, lampooning the argument in a characteristically uncompromising fashion. Dalton’s narrative path then, becomes doubly fascinating throughout the film as it mirrors Tarantino’s own career trajectory. If DiCaprio’s fading star can somehow find a way to reinvent himself, then perhaps so can the maverick director guiding his hand, the former enfant terrible who was once hailed as Hollywood’s saviour. It’s an enticing enigma, and one that is subtly augmented by the film’s shift in style. 

A new dimension

Make no mistake, this is a Tarantino film, it has the trademark moments of brutal bloodletting and fetishised feet that we’ve all come to expect. It’s overly long and in this reviewer’s opinion, awkwardly structured, a hallmark of the director’s later work. The six month time shift in the final third of the film picks back up with a jarring storytelling voiceover that doesn’t help the narrative. With that said, for all of these elements, good or bad, the characters and scenes are generally absorbing and handled with a lighter touch than we’ve seen from Tarantino for some time, perhaps since Jackie Brown. Characters are developed with their own voices, rather than seeming like proxies of their creator, and like Jackie Brown, the director’s usual cameo is reduced to an off-screen voice, this time in a post-credit sequence. 

Tonally, it’s a remarkably restrained piece of work throughout and the film benefits from this, allowing a depth of study of both environment and character (well, two characters at least, we’ll talk about Margot Robbie’s role shortly) that give the movie a delicate, enchanting quality that helps to sell the idea that this is a fable about a soul and a world, both held precariously in balance, the decline beyond the tipping point always in view. From Rick selling his prized Hollywood mansion (the asset that means ‘you aren’t just visiting’) to Brad Pitt’s stuntman Cliff Booth being kicked off a set for being just too damn macho (what else was he supposed to do in Bruce Lee’s presence but pick a fight with him? Sit on his hands? Walk away? Engage him in debate?), Tarantino depicts a lovelorn tribute to Hollywood’s old guard.

Of course, despite the general maturity of his approach, overtones of Tarantino’s indelible style endure. The aforementioned showdown between Bruce Lee and alpha stuntman, Cliff Booth feels like an unnecessary reinterpretation of Lee’s persona, casting Cliff as the de facto ‘hero’ of the scene when actually, the sequence glosses over a far more interesting character development that is never explored, that being the question of how Cliff’s wife died. Instead of imbuing Pitt’s character (who is fun, but somewhat flat) with a darker, more interesting shade, it settles for simply asserting his violent credentials by having him outmatch Lee, which feels like a missed storytelling opportunity traded out for a ‘cool’ surface moment. 

Violent endings

The inescapable talking point however, when it comes to revisionist takes will be, of course, the ending. With DiCaprio’s Dalton unable to enjoy his frozen margheritas in peace, he storms outside and unleashes an anti-hippie tirade at the lurking members of the Manson family, and in doing so, significantly alters history. Sharon Tate’s would-be killers instead decide to first murder Rick Dalton, killing a TV idol who in turn taught them how to kill. And so begins the film’s ultraviolet finale, a gleefully murderous spree that spurred both gasps and laughter in the screening I was in. 

On the way out of that viewing, I heard one guy remark to another about the overall lack of violence and the other reply “Yeah, Tarantino films usually end in a bloodbath,” a comment I found to be darkly ironic considering the scene closes with one of the hippy characters quite literally bathing in her own blood as DiCaprio’s Dalton, reverting to type, savagely torches her in his swimming pool with the same flamethrower from his WWII movie, The 14 Fists of McCluskey. 

The film’s lack of violence throughout may have surprised some cinema-goers, but it does mean that when the bloodletting begins, it seems all the more savage. The iconography of the flamethrower cannot be ignored either: for a man who has spent so much of the film struggling to progress, to find validity as an actor rather than just being ‘Rick Dalton’, to overcome alcoholism and insecurities, the fact that he triumphantly overcomes adversity in the final reel by reverting to type and embracing a past version of himself feels unabashedly symbolic on Tarantino’s part. After all, gratuitously setting ablaze a female antagonist who, let’s face it, was no real threat by that point in the narrative, feels like Tarantino very much thumbing his nose at his detractors, those who rail against his use of violence or treatment of women.

Finally, speaking of the treatment of women, much was made of Margot Robbie’s role as Sharon Tate before the film released. Whilst the approach to revising history will itself garner much attention and controversy, the message from Tarantino seems clear: I am going to keep things like this, to quote the Ted Hughes poem, an exercise in egoism made all the more jarring by Tate’s lack of character throughout the film. Apart from narrowly avoiding a grisly end, Robbie’s character is paper-thin and seems to serve no purpose apart from not getting murdered, a derisory inversion of the ‘girl-existing-simply-to-be-murdered trope’. Tarantino has said that he wanted Robbie’s character to be ‘sweetly haunting’ Hollywood like a ghost, and yes, you certainly get that sense about her, but by not asserting the requisite importance to her life, the film does little to contend the importance that her death would play in signalling the shift between one era of Hollywood (and America) to another, in the way that the film’s setup suggests. 

Stylistically then, Once Upon a Time sees Tarantino trying a few new tricks, almost all of which work well and make the film eminently watchable, despite the bloated running time. However, it’s his use of the narrative to trumpet his perceived flaws as a filmmaker that impede the film’s success; not because those aspects themselves are fundamentally flawed (that’s for better minds than mine to debate,) but because they steadfastly point to the limits of his vision, even in a movie like this when he’s clearly, in some ways at least, trying to create something expansive. And that, for all of the myth-making surrounding both film and filmmaker, means that despite its inherent enjoyability and undoubted craft, despite it possessing enough quality to qualify as a triumph for almost any film, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood still feels sightly more like a missed opportunity than an ascension into the stuff of legend.

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