Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★

Mild spoilers

Leaving the theater, I was a lot keener on this than I am now. Tarantino has made a name for himself in revisionist history using cinema to reverse the deeds of the wicked for the sake of the victims but more importantly for audiences. His violence is unrelenting, comic, and satisfying. We are presented with the worst of human society with no room for gray areas - these people deserve to suffer by our present moral standards and we will laugh as they flail foolishly, the blood they shed not only 'just' but a ritual for our own cathartic entertainment.
Tarantino continues to veer from the greatness of his past pictures and aim his barrel right into the gray area itself, this time wielded by two bystanders. When retribution arrives in the final act, Tate and co. spared their grisly end, it is more horrifying than anything. Due to the celebrity presence inevitable in a Hollywood-centric film, Tarantino relies on his audience’s prior knowledge on these figures. That's to be expected, but what is not justified is leaving much of these real-life characters woefully undeveloped, especially considering the runtime.

Our brief encounter with the Manson family shows them to be drugged up, feverishly loyal and deracinated youth. I'm not an expert on the murders or their perpetrators, and while I can condemn the act they committed as evil, I think they’re too complicated as characters to equate to high ranking Nazi officials or brutal antebellum slave owners. It's ignorant to think in terms of good and evil when dealing with individuals, but when the fictionalized characters at hand act as the physical manifestation of evil regimes, such as the two mentioned prior, we can embrace a role reversal bringing the predator to his knees.

Tarantino fails in this instance for several reasons. To start, our perpetrators of evil are very real. I'll admit for Adolf Hitler's demise in Inglorious Bastards, this was not an issue in that he has become a symbolic figure, a shorthand for authoritarian brutality. Perhaps I could cut the film more slack if it was Charles Manson himself on the receiving end and not his misguided lackeys. While the Tate murder perpetrators are as real as Hitler, they lack the symbolic value of a regime of hate. Manson's time in the spotlight was brief, and while his crimes are unforgivable having left very real victims in their wake, they cannot compare to the millions enslaved, coerced, and murdered by the systematic regimes Tarantino critiqued before. While the murderer's backstories are largely left untouched by the film, it is evident that these strange dirty kids on the ranch are lost more than anything, people who have finally found a sense of purpose and community albeit in evil. I won't condone their actions, but I also won't omit my empathy as Tarantino so callously does. Seeing these people be slashed, bashed, and burned with glee was sickening in all honesty. We are condemning the wrong folks, making demons out of fools.

The shocking bloodbath that concludes the film certainly does a number on the pacing. Where I thought Tarantino succeeded most was in presenting a charming, though rose-colored and passive, slice of life look into the ‘glory days’ of Hollywood. Pitt and DiCaprio’s characters in tandem are a treat, their scenes of male camaraderie complimented by playful nods to Hollywood and Italian Cinema’s now quaint past. Had this been kept up, I think the product would have been a solid, comforting and enjoyable film I’d come back to from time to time. I may have expressed disappointment in such a film’s passivity, an unwillingness to confront the problems of the past that nostalgia fogs, but then again, not every film needs to go on a grim crusade to expose our sins. Keeping in mind this lack of confrontation, the final slaughter may act as compensation, but it is ultimately unconvincing.

I also wish that Robbie had more screen time, she came across as one of the more dedicated performances in her subtlety. With such a star-studded cast, it came as a major disappointment that the actors were so underutilized. Scene after scene of filler (the sequence with the child actor comes to mind) instead inundate the film and manage to drain the fun out of one of contemporary American cinema’s most entertaining directors.

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