More of a mood than a movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is nonetheless an arresting, dark satire of changing times for filmdom and TV. It also explores Tarantino’s focus on the border between story-telling and ‘reality’, though here, the characters’ reality is a rather surreal 1969 Los Angeles. And the film viewer’s reality sitting outside all this and watching Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is their own reality a half-century on from events depicted in the film.
In Tarantino’s ‘once upon a time’, there are references in both myth and mood to Sergio Leone’s two films, Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America, where Leone wasn’t particularly interested in historical accuracy, but in using image-charged tropes from the past, sure to resonate with the audience, as platforms to explore interesting themes.
In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino’s conceit (spoiler alert) is the question: what would/should have happened if the Manson family had picked the wrong house to hit? Suppose instead of knocking at Sharon Tate’s door, the psychos had instead burst in on an aging, has-been actor played by Leo DiCaprio and his super-capable stunt double played by Brad Pitt? The lead-up to this denouement portrays a late sixties Los Angeles in which everything seems to be turned up to eleven, all the colors are saturated, all the cars are cool, all the pop songs are totally heavy, and period details have been layered on with painstaking finesse. In short, an evocation of an era that never existed, but should have.
Many of the film’s individual parts deserve shout-outs including a diptych of scenes composed of DiCaprio’s character on a film set making a clichéd Western saloon scene complete with ominous looking heavies lining the bar and dusty street immediately followed by a scene with Pitt’s character – the lone hero – strolling down the main road of the Manson Family’s compound lined with lobotomy-eyed family members circling ever closer. Another scene has Margot Robbie playing Sharon Tate in a theater watching herself on screen while also observing the audience’s happy reaction to her acting, another multi-layered set-piece looking at the tangible bond between audience and actor/creator. There are dozens of other scenes and character actors by the score to admire too.
The film already has been critiqued extensively, but I couldn’t resist adding my own thoughts. Though assuredly not perfect, it’s sometimes too long, too self-aware of its conceits, and the spectacular set-piece scenes don’t always seem integrated into the whole, Tarantino has nonetheless made a luridly watchable film.