For his next film, Quentin Tarantino is taking us back to the year 1969. Right at the end of the Golden Age of Hollywood. When hippies roamed the streets, men landed on the moon, and westerns were at the end of their time. Tarantino’s ninth feature film is titled Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and it premiered at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival playing in competition – a major feat. He won the Palme d’Or back in 1994 for Pulp Fiction, and has returned a few other times previously with Grindhouse and Inglourious Basterds. This sprawling, nearly-three hour “Old Hollywood” feature is one of Tarantino’s most casually entertaining – part of it is a western, part of it is cruising around Los Angeles, and part of it is a story about a fading TV actor and his badass stuntman. There’s plenty of slick moments in it, alas it doesn’t best his previous films.
The intense anticipation and excitement going in to watch a new Tarantino film can be a bit overwhelming, especially because we all have great expectations. When this latest one finished, I wasn’t even sure what to say at first. I honestly didn’t have any instant gut reaction to express, but I did want to talk about it (with everyone else who saw it) and I definitely do want to watch it again. It’s good, and I enjoyed plenty of it, but I didn’t love it. Most of my viewing I thought yeah, this is cool, there’s some great scenes, and it’s a fun time – but where is it all going? What is it leading up to? And while the film doesn’t exactly need to go anywhere, if this one wasn’t taking us somewhere all the joyriding and moping wouldn’t really mean anything. It would just seem like a bore, nearly two hours of an actor trying to find his footing in a world where they only see him as the one character he’s known for. While his stuntman drives around town, gets into fights with other stuntmen, and stumbles upon the Spahn Ranch where Charles Manson’s horde of hippies are hanging out.
Thankfully, there is a point to all of this – although it takes two and a half hours to get there. And Tarantino seems pissed. It’s another one of his revenge fantasy films, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Especially because the ending is so deviously satisfying, especially for someone like me who hates Charles Manson and that whole story about him and his followers. But it does give Tarantino a chance to spend time exploring Old Hollywood, and the difference between the old and the new, how the new wants to kill off the old (both literally and metaphorically), and how much he seems to love actress Sharon Tate. If anything, this is one of the haziest aspects of the film. We spend a lot of time following Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate around, including a scene where she goes to watch herself in the film The Wrecking Crew and admires the audience reacting to her performance. All of this time spent with Tate doesn’t amount to much, and feels fleeting in comparison to the main story about the actor and stuntman. But again, Tarantino seems to really love Tate.
The primary focus of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is on Leonardo DiCaprio as TV actor Rick Dalton, who starred on a classic B&W western called “Bounty Law”, along with his stuntmant / driver / friend / confidant Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt. DiCaprio is awesome to watch in this, of course, but it’s Pitt who takes the cake giving the most impressive and unforgettable performance. He’s quite charming, despite a nefarious and rather dangerous side, and this makes him very likable but still a sonuvabitch. And he’s also the biggest badass in the film, which is obvious because he takes all the hits for Dalton. The entire second act in this is Tarantino straight up making a western, by way of watching Dalton take on a bad guy role in a western they’re making. One of the best scenes in the film involves Dalton chatting about acting with a very young co-star. And there’s so much context in that scene that speaks to the rest of what we’re seeing in the film. More than anything, it seems to be about a lasting legacy and how it matters as much as the next role.
I’m pretty sure everyone’s mileage will vary on this Tarantino film. Some will love it more than others, some will be bored to tears. But I doubt many will call it their favorite Tarantino film. There’s just not enough in the first two hours to justify that, no matter how “holy fuck” amazing and Tarantino-esque the finale may be. As expected, the film is chock full of hearty references to other films and TV and old Hollywood and good times in the 1960s. A bit of his childhood, a bit of his love for classic cinema, a bit of his love for westerns (especially Italian spaghetti westerns). It’s a film where he digs into the past to express, through perfectly crafted cinema, his feelings about moviemaking and artists and the Manson murders and much more. And that “much omre” is the best part because, even if I don’t love this film, there is still plenty to talk about. Plenty to discuss about what it shows and what the best scenes are and how fantastic Pitt and DiCaprio are.
Alex’s Cannes 2019 Rating: 8 out of 10
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