Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

I've liked every film Quentin Tarantino has made, and until tonight, I would have been hard pressed to even choose a least favourite. So I was pretty surprised to turn to my wife at the end of the movie and say, unequivocally: fuck this film.

And yet I worry I've gotten the wrong end of the stick, and I have too much respect to QT to just flame it. So consider this a provisional unpacking.

First up: what the hell is the story of this film? It would be easy - and not entirely inaccurate - to say that it's not a story but a Linklater-style "hang-out movie", but ending a hangout movie with an arrival of a bunch of killers - well, it's a *choice*, but I don't think it's the one Quentin is making. Nor do I think that it's just a clothesline to hang endless cultural references and in-jokes onto, even if it is that, and even if it is an utterly gratuitous exercise: given that every damn movie he has made is about movies, making a movie about making movies that are about movies is a level of Quentinception that can't help but bemuse me at points.

Back to the question. There's a few big choices in the movie, and one of the biggest is to have Cliff (Brad Pitt) kill his wife under confused circumstances. It's not clear whether it's accidental or on purpose, just that a) he was let free and b) she was "asking for it".

Now, we have a film set at the end of a historical era where the values of a society are changing. The real story of the film, in my opinion, is about two friends, a flamboyant personality who has seen better days and the guy who "carries his load" and makes things happen. The latter guy has committed a heinous crime against a woman (who, we know, was "asking for it") that other people judge him for and ostracize him from the business for, but his old friend sticks beside him - that is, until he gets married and has to break ties.

Is it just me, or does this sound a *lot* like Quentin and Harvey?

It kinda does to me, and when I saw how the end unfolded, as a rewriting of history, where the two get to go out in a blaze of glory - one, incidentally, that seems to confirm the worst suspicions one might have about Cliff, as he takes inordinate satisfaction in cruelty towards his victims, before Rick gets to go off with a new, more successful neighbour that will lift him to the next level of success - I felt pretty angry that this was the overloaded clothesline that all this other stuff was stuck on.

Having said that, let's rewind a bit, because it's not like I was watching a film that I loved that curdled in my mouth. There are many commendable elements of OUATIH. Of course there are! Brad and Leo are great, there's a few terrific scenes (Julia Butters is 100% getting Skandies points), and I can't pretend I didn't get tingles as the neon signs of Hollywood come on at night. And QT's love of actors ripples through the whole thing.

But on the whole, this is calibrated for someone with a different set of pleasure sensors than I have, and from the beginning I found many scenes belaboured (that fucking dog food scene!), the lack of forward momentum frustrating, the superfluity of period detail stifling, the dialogue unusually unmemorable, and the choice of timing as to when to tell the story confusing as hell. (Starting a ticking clock on Feb 8, then Feb 9, then suddenly cutting 6 months later ... well, that's a choice.)

I've said before that QT's films have suffered since the passing of Sally Menke, and I think that HATEFUL EIGHT and DJANGO UNCHAINED would have been better films if she cut them. But I still think they're strong films that burn clearly, and this feels very muddy and lost to me, and I think it's from a fundamental script level. There's been a lot of discussion as to what the best Tarantino scene is, lately, and for me, it's the opening dialogue scene of INGLOURIOUS, where every filmmaking element - performance, dialogue writing, camera framing, editing, prop design, and that perfectly timed camera movement down to reveal what's under the floor - exquisitely calibrates a tension that's endemic to the script.

There's no real tension anywhere here, other than maybe a small bit where we wonder if Rick is going to be able to nail his lines, other than "what is going to happen with this Manson/Spahn Ranch stuff?". There's another inevitable comparison to INGLOURIOUS, of course, which rewrites history in a brutal way. But here, it's not the result of a plan. It's the result of two men on the wrong side of the history going out for one last hurrah, one riding off into the sunset as a hero, and one moving on to bigger and better things. The latter may be true for QT (though obviously I disagree about this being better), but the former, if we accept the QT/Harvey coding, is repulsive, but perhaps also his ultimate wish fulfillment/apologia. (Said apologia may be taken one step further in the opening titles, which place Leo's card under the back of Brad's head and vice-versa.)

Look: I promise you, I'm not trying to be reflexively woke with this take. I'm trying to interrogate this and figure out what the hell to take from it. And I know lots of smart people like it, and I'm going to read their takes on it and digest them. I'm routinely wrong about films, and I imagine I'll revisit this eventually. But outrage aside, I'm just shocked at the sheer lack of desire I have to give it another look. I know the past was great for some, but maybe it's time to let the old ways die.


ETA 4 August:

So I can't stop thinking about this film, which is some sort of accomplishment and some sort of testament to the amount of great writing it's inspired. A couple more thoughts.

* I wonder if the intended parallel to Leo and Brad is not QT and Harvey but QT and Eli Roth? The latter "carried his load" by directing NATION'S PRIDE, was the best man at his wedding, and that reading kind of helps make the casting of Lorenza Izzo, a Chilean, as Leo's Italian wife make much more sense.

* That makes another parallel to INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, which of course Brad and Eli were both in. There's a throwaway reference to Brad as a "war hero" in real life, but INGLOURIOUS shows that "war hero" and "bloodthirsty psychopath" aren't that far apart, and those two characters epitomise it the most. America's history is one long braid of violence, something the last few films have dwelt on at great length.

* There's also this one: IB begins with "Once Upon A Time In Nazi-Occupied France". Returning to that titular structure knits the two films together, but also contrasts them. Tarantino recently provided an opening text to Christopher Frayling's ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST book, which I haven't read but said intro was excerpted in the Spectator. I'm thinking a lot about this excerpt: "It is the end of the spaghetti western as we know it. It's the end of this magnificent genre which wasn't given any respect." Look at the films in the marquees in ... HOLLYWOOD, and it's like he's providing the same capstone for a genre. But where IB's opening chapter employs a Leone-sharp shooting and editing style, ... HOLLYWOOD is more of the time and feel of the past. I have no idea what to make of that, but I don't think Tarantino hasn't thought about it.

* Also worth noting that the purported original title, 69, was not just apposite and a dirty joke but also an example of the doubling that is emphasized throughout the film.

* One of the most interesting Twitter theories I've seen - and sorry but I lost track of it - linked the dog's delayed feeding to the audience's delayed gratification. Part of me finds this perversely confusing - why is Tarantino serving us the same ugly slop that supposed to be lapping up knowingly? - and part of me thinks it makes total sense.

* My wife thinks that's a bridge too far, but it occurs to me that the very first major dialogue in RESERVOIR DOGS is about textual interpretation, namely a close reading of Madonna's "Like A Virgin". Dude loves reading things into things, why wouldn't he love making films designed to make you read things into things?

* I'm not sure any of this makes me like the film any more? But I am a lot more curious to watch it again than I was a couple days ago.

* One question: who were the other filmmakers that Rick worked with in Italy beside Corbucci? (I didn't recognise their names, and wasn't sure if they were real or not.)