Some viewers may be unfamiliar with the Tate Murders of 8-9 August 1969. The Manson family cult brutally murdered rising star Sharon Tate (portrayed by a captivating Margot Robbie) at her home, along with her unborn baby and four other adults. The ninth film by Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, is set to the backdrop of the months leading up to this.
But it is by no means a standard biographical retelling. Instead, Tarantino creates a fictitious Los Angeles story which follows ageing TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his long-time stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as they venture round a Hollywood they barely recognise anymore. Tarantino’s ninth is a sublime, character-heavy exposé of celebrity culture and movie industry myths in Hollywood’s golden age, which tonally is a radical shift from his previous films.
If you were expecting another Tarantino feature bursting with stylized violence and witty dialogue, though, then you may be disappointed. Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood substitutes the bloodlust and sharp spoken word for a commanding, tense linear narrative which engrosses itself in the development of its central characters and cultural messages. There is still violence, and plenty of excellent one-liners reserved for some outstanding delivery by DiCaprio and Pitt, but this is the work of a truly mature filmmaker who is comfortable in his artistic vision behind the camera – a masterful presence within Hollywood exploring the era which inspired his work. It is Tarantino’s slowest film to date, but in this pacing, an exquisite, immersive setting flourishes in the limelight – a true love letter to the indulgent climate of late-1960’s Hollywood.
From the start, Rick Dalton is established as a character that audiences can associate with, and viewers are thrown into his world as he comes to realise that he’s no longer a relevant presence. Tarantino crafts such a compelling narrative around Dalton’s battle with his insecurities that shelving the impending Manson murders feels oddly appropriate. The glamorously meticulous detail in the recreation of late-60s Hollywood makes this film a pure delight to experience; Tarantino’s virtuosity here is some of his best.
Many scenes conclude with an overhanging shot, as if to allow the audience a moment to reflect. There’s a message or two to be learned here. Tarantino once again uses flashbacks, but frequently they operate to highlight Rick and Cliff’s psychology, serving as some of the craftiest scene-cuts in the whole film. Robbie may not have many lines as the alluring up-and-coming actress, but this lets the true thematic element to thrive. One can look into the horrors of the fateful evening Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is based around, but by focussing on the minds of these fictional characters in a world riven with its own long-term embedded repulsions, Tarantino challenges viewers to form their own interpretations of the wider society it is presenting, and it works magnificently.
He doesn’t over-fantasise, nor does he simply recreate the idealised world of Hollywood. Instead, Tarantino gives audiences an exceptionally provocative story which allows for the most elegant escapism this year in film may see.
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