Although Quentin Tarantino spends a good deal of time attempting to capture the aura of Hollywood at the end of the 1960s, his ultimate payoff is an outburst of the sort of repellent violence in which he has gloried during his career. His fans may whoop it up laughing at the excess—such as burning someone to death and brutally smashing skulls—but others may be put off by the intense, smart-alecky killing.
Satire is hardly the director’s strong point, although he makes a stab, sometimes successfully, at finding humor in surveying the Hollywood scene and its inhabitants in a big chunk of his sprawling opus that runs two hours and 41 minutes. He has also been wise enough to cast two top male stars in a relationship upon which he builds his observations that attempt to create nostalgia. Tarantino knows how to imitate genres, the western in particular, and blend imaginary material with real clips.
The story, scripted by Tarantino, is structured around the friendship between actor Rick Dalton, played appealingly to the hilt by Leonardo DiCaprio, and his stunt double, boozing partner, chauffeur and long-time pal Cliff Booth, portrayed by an also excellent Brad Pitt. The better professional days for both Rick and Cliff are on their last legs, but the men still grasp at remaining opportunities. Tarantino’s take on Hollywood is enhanced by assorted references, locations and parodies. Real people of the era are portrayed, including actors Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis), Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) and director Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond). Noted landmarks are depicted, such as the hedonistic Playboy Mansion. Autos of the period, studios and assorted artifacts add authenticity, as do the skillful production design and cinematography.
How effective you may find all of this depends on how you relate to Tarantino’s vision. In other hands such material might become much more entertaining and satirical. All of this, including the more amusing bits and the pro acting by the stars, is a careful buildup to the violent payoff climax.
The horror of the actual murder of a pregnant Sharon Tate, wife of director Roman Polanski, by the Charles Manson cult, is paralleled by a substitute assault. There is a build-up to what we think will be the Tate episode itself. We are introduced to the hippie cult of female followers of Manson at the location where they hang out, and ultimately, under Manson’s orders, a group sets out to kill rich Hollywood types.
Tate, played by Margot Robbie, is seen happily enjoying her performance in a film at a movie house and cavorting with friends, which leads us to think that we will see Tate’s murder. But Tarantino pulls a switch. Rick, his Italian wife, and Cliff become the targets, and, reversing gears, it is the Manson invaders who get slaughtered, the brutality of which is designed to feed audience delight at the spectacle of vicious revenge.
How much of an appetite you have for enjoying such violent retribution may determine your overall reaction to the film. Tarantino has clearly embodied “Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood” with his personal vision quite expertly achieved. How much of this vision appeals to you is the question. A Columbia Pictures release. Reviewed July 26, 2019.