Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
The culture of violence is one that is ubiquitous everywhere in the world, Kubrick himself showed the longevity of such intraspecies violence with his famous “bone” sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). However, violence has been particularly attributed to the United States in how it is deeply ingrained in their everyday culture, from the difference of gun laws to the carefree age restrictions on films, TV, and video games. Quentin Tarantino has been a filmmaker that has garnered fame because of his ridiculous indulgence of violence, thus when announcing his latest film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) would be dealing with the Manson murders, one didn’t expect the nuanced introspection the American director would bring.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is set in 1969 LA, following fictional fading TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman/driver Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as they struggle to cling on to the exclusive sets of Hollywood. Dalton’s next-door-neighbors are the (non-fictional) up-and-coming director Roman Polanksi (Rafal Zawieruka) and actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). As the film focuses on the daily struggles of Rick and Cliff, the story visits Tate as the audience inevitably begins to recall she was murdered by the cultist leader Charles Manson that same year.
Tarantino, being Hollywood’s resident film buff, populates his latest film with countless references to films of yore, with acted cameos of Hollywood greats such as Steve McQueen (Damien Lewis) and Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). There is clearly a lingering love for the Western as Rick Dalton’s character is specialized in the genre and the narrative itself mirrors certain genre clichés. The film is nearly three hours long, seeking to immerse you into the hit-by-hit life of an actor on set, and Tarantino certainly achieves this, spending a lot of time with the desperate Rick as he explores the vague new status he is being shoved into; DiCaprio brings along an electric performance demonstrating why he is considered one of the best performers in modern times. Through Cliff’s character, Tarantino is able to explore LA and the specific empty feeling many of its residents have when the gilded gates of Hollywood are shut on them. Pitt seems to bring a rather indifferent tone to his character, so that one can’t tell whether Cliff doesn’t care about anything anymore, and is accepting his fate, or if Pitt himself is not engaging much with the script. It certainly felt like the American actor was delivering all of his lines in the same way; one could say he looks rather bored the entire time.
The diverse array of storylines clash and diverge, making the film more akin to Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) than anything else. The American auteur also experiments with a volatile editing tone (descriptive subtitles, intermittent voice-overs, abrupt flashbacks, etc.), that adds to a sense of chaos. There have been attempts to show the abrupt chaos and sudden stillness of Hollywood life, and yet none have been able to achieve it until Tarantino, who seems to use the films length as a counter-balance to the action on screen.
Reading this description of the film, it seems strange why Tarantino inserts the Manson and Tate storyline at all, as he had a clear set-up for a dissection of Hollywood and its cruel cycle with its artists already. However, Tarantino is asking a further analysis from viewers, and one need only look at one’s own expectations when seeing this film; Tarantino is known for his violence, and Once Upon A Time in Hollywood seems to completely restrain itself, retaining only Tarantino’s equally masterful witty humor. Only in the final act does Tarantino give in to what audiences where expecting, and even here it seems somewhat different. “And now the moment you’ve all been waiting for” the narrator says as the finale is set-up. Tarantino’s choices in these final sequences (and to whom they are performed) speak to the analysis that he is making towards violence on film and its exploitation by studios. Tarantino’s films and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood have exaggerated it’s violent sequences to nearly cartoonish levels (it’s hard in many to not chuckle) so as to make its presence and its use as pure entertainment felt. Films and TV have numbed audiences over the decades so that a mere gunning-down of a man leaves one completely indifferent, something with more gore or horror needs to be shown to elicit a greater reaction. Given viewers’ fascination with the Manson murders and other serial and cultist killers from the 1970s-onwards, it seemed like the perfect tease for Tarantino to use to make his larger point of audience’s desire to see such horrors on screen. The American director almost seems to be asking “why have you bought a ticket to see this movie?”
It seems ironic that a director famed for his use of exploitative violence is making such commentary (while at the same time profiting from it) and yet it might make the message in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood all the more impactful. The film is also an expert look at the inner-workings of an actors struggle with a strong performance from DiCaprio. The rhythmic changes do make the film feel as long as it is, but it doesn’t take away from the impact of Tarantino’s storytelling his immersive capabilities.