This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
C.J.’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
One of the first scenes in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has Rick Dalton (Leonard DiCaprio) meeting with casting agent Marvin Schwarsz, who lays out a harsh reality. Dalton, once a leading man in films and the star of 50s TV show Bounty Law, has been reduced to guest roles as the villain on various series. Schwarsz explains the psychological impact this career path has on viewers: they see Dalton himself rather than the characters he plays, and the repeated image of him being defeated by younger, up and coming talent on network shows will prevent him from ever landing another major role.
In one way, Quentin Tarantino’s film is entirely about the psychological effect Schwarsz describes, watching character and actor simultaneously, and how both things influence each other. It’s a topic that must be addressed, given the setting of Hollywood in 1969, and the interaction of fictional characters with actors playing real-life celebrities from the era. This is all combined with the main roles being portrayed by DiCaprio and Brad Pitt (playing Dalton’s stuntman and hired friend Cliff Booth), two of the few leading men in Hollywood who can create ticket sales on their names alone. Stack these layers on top of each other and they start merging together into an amorphous mass, with one foot in our sense of time and place and one foot outside of it.
In Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained (the start of the back half of his self-described career limit of 10 films), Tarantino switched his interest in time, going from playing within the framework of his own creations to playing with our own, objective measure of it. There was no point going back in time just to recreate the past, as it’s impossible. He saw his recreations of Nazi-era Germany and the Antebellum South as exactly that, and if the worlds he’s creating are inherently false, then why not change the outcome? Tarantino took our self-awareness of historical movies, of watching and not watching what used to be, and seized on it to pull us in the opposite direction, moral obligations be damned.
Now, with his 9th film, he evolves this idea, heading inward and taking a bigger risk, honing in on a personal tragedy with far-reaching consequences instead of large-scale, institutional tragedies from the past. There’s no better example of how different this new approach feels than the sequence of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) travelling around Los Angeles. Tate sees a cinema playing The Wrecking Crew (which she has a supporting role in) and goes inside to watch herself in the film. But when we cut from Robbie’s face to the screen, we’re watching the real Sharon Tate in The Wrecking Crew, and therefore Robbie is too. So we have “Sharon Tate” watching the real Sharon Tate, while we see both versions and recognize that, for once, we see her outside of the horror that’s come to define her in our collective memory, as a radiant human being basking in the glory of being a star. Tarantino creates a paradox and, within this moment, sustains it, without making the whole thing collapse. The effect is exhilarating.
It’s not too much of a surprise, then, that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood flows at its own pace, without much momentum behind it. Tarantino doesn’t have a lot of plot here, as the presence of a more conventional narrative would define everything in the film around it, and that’s not what interests him. This is about building a space of one’s own desire and living in it, and whether one finds this space of Tarantino’s own desire worth spending time in is a matter of one’s own interests.
Which brings me to the ending, where Tarantino veers from history yet again to give us the outcome only Hollywood could pull off (it’s no coincidence that, before the climax begins, Tarantino shows multiple cinema signs lighting up as night time sets in, as if to say it’s showtime). I’ve seen lots of interpretations on what he’s doing here, with Rick and Cliff’s heroic act seen as an “if only they were there that night,” Rick and Cliff overpowering the new (and weak) generation, a bunch of reactionary nonsense, or a combination of these things (to name a few). This is Tarantino’s third time in the past decade where he has disregarded historical fact to burrow into a revisionist, escapist route, so why do we keep putting his choices in relation to the very thing he’s avoiding?
I look at Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as a film by a director who’s facing down the fact that there’s more behind him than there is in front of him and using his tools to create something where this doesn’t happen. And as aggressive as the violence may be, I don’t see much defensiveness or anger in what he’s doing here either. It’s being aware of the Tate murders while seeing a world where those events never took place, existing in both worlds simultaneously, and reconciling the two. Tarantino shows no concern with our future because there's no place for him in it, so why not make one for himself?