For older generations of a certain persuasion, the late 1960s are a source of infinite intrigue and enjoyment. The political, musical and cinematic turmoils of the time make it prime real estate for nearly any filmmaker from the baby boomer generation. One-time Hollywood bad boy Quentin Tarantino is no exception to this standard.
Before actually sitting down to watch his latest feature, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, I tried to come up with the things that would be involved in a Tarantino movie about the Manson murders. Of course, there would be a semi-comedic examination of the Manson philosophy through the eyes of one of the fictional protagonists. There would also be a large amount of cinematic references to Los Angeles noir films and a general sense of tribute to this era in filmmaking. And while there are things I expected in the movie — the typical Tarantino dialogue being one — this film ends up being the most surprising of his films I have had the pleasure to see.
The film follows the trials of one-time television big shot Rick Dalton (Leonardo Dicaprio) and his stuntman, Cliff Booth, (Brad Pitt) as they navigate Los Angeles during the summer of love. The most interesting and surprising aspect of the time and place of the film is there is very little said about it. Tarantino seems to be more interested in the characters themselves than social and political implications that era had on American culture.
Although the film's marketing seems to be very interested in the Manson murders, the film almost treats the infamous crime as a joke. In fact, the entire film would likely come off as a giant joke if it weren't for the deeply personal hidden narrative.
The first hint that there is something much smarter being said in this film is in the structure. Unlike nearly every other Tarantino film, this film really doesn’t use his traditional structure.The characters in the film don’t have as clearly defined goals and endpoints as they did in films like “Inglorious Basterds” or “Django Unchained”. The chapter headings that usually allowed for a very simple structure to his films are gone as well. This came as a giant surprise to me and many others as the title would suggest a fairy tale. The characters have very little in the way of goals and there is no inciting incident. Which, I suppose, could be a commentary on the overall lack of purpose many Americans had during this time. To be frank, I found this change in structure to be very refreshing, because it feels like the first time Tarantino has challenged himself in a while.
Tarantino and his contemporaries have always been out and out cinephiles who use their working knowledge of classic cinema to create something new. Tarantino’s influences are wide in range but always obvious in the work that he produces. Spaghetti westerns for “The Hateful Eight” and kung-fu and samurai pictures for “Kill Bill”. However, this film seems to draw direct references to his own films and play on the specific expectations that someone who is a Tarantino fan would have.
A memorable scene in which the producer Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) recalls seeing some of Dalton's earlier movies, one being a gritty western and another being a gonzo anti-Nazi film, are direct references to Tarantino’s other work. And while on one level this is a nice nod to the other films, it is clear that Tarantino is setting up both Dalton and Cliff to be parts of himself. The washed-up old man who might no longer be able to relate to cinema audiences and misses it, and the beaten-down veteran who enjoys it.
The scene that left my mouth on the floor was not the gruesome ending, although it was glorious, but a scene in which Dalton talks very frankly with a young and enthusiastic actress. Almost every bit of illusion concerning what the film is about is dropped here. This scene, along with the very subtly chilling ending, are some of the best moments in the film and makes it worth seeing.
There’s very little reason, in my mind, to talk about the formal aspects, such as the lighting or camera work, here. Every film fan on the planet should know that Tarantino has become a master of his craft and anyone even remotely fond of his aesthetic style will find something to love. Yet, I have a sneaking suspicion that most audiences will not find this film to be as entertaining as the rest of his filmography. There really aren't many quotable lines or as many great action scenes as his other films. Despite this difference, for me, the film will hold as his most personal film to date and an indicator that Tarantino still has stories to tell.