In-depth, character-driven, ultra-violent, over-long, and near-perfect.
With “The Fall of the Studio System” in 1969 Hollywood as a backdrop, fading actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) botches a bid to jump from television to movies and is reduced to guest-starring TV villains, distancing himself from heroic-lead consideration and continuing career success. His stunt-double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) has a tarnished reputation of his own, leaving them both struggling to remain relevant in spite of their considerable talents. Speaking of reputations, Dalton’s new next-door neighbor on Cielo Drive is none other than Rosemary’s Baby director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) with his new bride Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie)… because students of history and true crime already know the clock is ticking.
Everyone knows writer/director Quentin Tarantino is a film buff-turned-filmmaker, having a way of latching onto a genre he appreciates to make it his own. His efforts are at the very least applauded, if only for calling attention to the forgotten or forsaken yesteryears of Hollywood. From Grindhouse exploitation flicks and revisionist history Inglourious Basterds to revenge-fantasy Kill Bill Volume I and II and Django Unchained, it’s easy to tell he’s obsessed with movies and their power to tell a story. With the announcement of a film about the infamous Manson Murders, questions have swirled around the production, from who DiCaprio and Pitt were playing to whether it was going to be a biopic or pure fiction, not to mention handling the grisly loss of life in either circumstance and their effect upon survivors. Exactly what unthinkable unclean horror is QT about to unleash?
Once Upon a Time oozes and revels in West Coast 1969, immersing viewers in the end of the Golden Age and celebrating the era. While Tarantino has rewritten history for the hell of it, this time he uses his AU (“Alternate Universe” for the uninitiated) powers to create something incredible, a thing younger audiences may not fully appreciate. While fictional Rick Dalton is presented on the decline, Sharon Tate is shown as a rising star, embodied with carefree and wild abandon by ringer Margot Robbie. The brilliance here is how and when these fictional and real-world characters and their stories intersect, a film that takes its time and builds tension whether viewers recognize the danger signs or not. The end result is all the movie sins Tarantino has been criticized for over the years coming to a head in the most wondrous and cheer-worthy payoff any film fan could want.
If “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” were still a thing, this is the kind of film that could shortcut three degrees easily. Stand-outs include Mike Moh as “Green Hornet” Kato-era Bruce Lee, “yes he’s still alive” Bruce Dern as George Spahn, Dakota Fanning as Squeaky Fromme, and the underplayed menace of Austin Butler as Tex. Watch for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her moment from “Stranger Things” Season 3 actor Maya Hawke, but the real scene-stealer is Julia Butters as Trudi, the junior perfectionist who convincingly imparts wisdom beyond her years. When Timothy Olyphant, Lena Dunham, Emile Hirsch, and Al Pacino are playing the small parts, you know there are no small parts. The QT usuals also get their bits in, including Kurt Russell (plus a bit of narration), Zoë Bell, and Michael Madsen.
There’s a thing in Tarantino films where the brilliant soundtrack appears organic, from characters dropping a coin into a jukebox to turning a radio dial, and of course it’s made up of songs of the era; music supervisor Mary Ramos says that process begins in Tarantino’s home vinyl music collection. From sound to visuals, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is immersive, telling, real, fake, and everything in between, comfortable to the point that 161 minutes goes by like a visit with old friends — somehow never long enough. Unlike “killing Hitler” which lent nothing to history other than a different spin, Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film answers the question all storytellers must ask themselves: “Should I use my powers for evil… or good?”
Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is rated R for language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use, sexual references, and lots of dirty hippie feet.
Four skull recommendation out of four