ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD - Out of Time
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to an era that ran out of time.
The transition to the final act in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, the latest film from Quentin Tarantino, is set to “Out of Time” by The Rolling Stones. As the 1966 song plays, the screen is illuminated with neon logos and cinema marquees on display at the end of Hollywood’s golden age. They are presented with warmth and reverence from a director that clearly holds the era in high regard. That golden age, though, came to a screeching halt as tastes changed and massive societal upheavals took place. The Tate murders at the hands of the Manson Family occurred during this time and served as a representative for the death of a particular innocence in Hollywood. Tarantino uses all of this to weave and construct a film that’s a letter to a very particular and specific time while also condemning those responsible for its demise.
The plot of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is basic even with the film having a near 3 hour run time. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a struggling television actor that has gone from starring in his own western, “Bounty Law”, to being reduced to doing guests spots. The downturn in his career has done a number on his self-esteem, but it is constantly and positively reinforced by his best friend, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Booth, who lives in a trailer with his dog, also serves as Dalton’s driver, handyman, and stunt double.
The key to understanding the dynamic between Dalton and Booth is that Booth is everything Dalton wishes he could be. Booth exudes an unwavering confidence in his life while being a struggling stunt-man. He has an abundance of cool while also having a sketchy past. A rumor involving the death of his wife hangs over Booth’s head, but that doesn’t seem to get him down one bit. Dalton, though, exudes a staggering amount of self-doubt while being a recognizable star. People know him from his past work, but he struggles with being a has-been. Like the entire period when the film takes place, Dalton is out of time. He’s become a relic. It’s fascinating to think their relationship is based on the relationship of Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham.
As Dalton ponders what he sees as a bad offer to do a spaghetti western in Italy, he hopes to introduce himself to his new neighbors, who just so happen to be Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha). The film takes time to show Tate’s idyllic life with Polanski, her friends, and her life in late 60’s Hollywood. All of this takes place with the looming threat of the Manson Family, who are initially introduced as hippies roaming the streets and hitchhiking before we get a proper introduction later in the film when Booth takes a trip to the Spahn Movie Ranch.
Speaking of the Spahn Movie Ranch, the sequence there is rather important to the overall point of the film. The decaying ranch, the place where Dalton and Booth used to work on “Bounty Law” and is now overrun by a squatting commune of hippies, is probably the clearest symbol Tarantino uses to get his point across about the changes in Hollywood during the late 60’s. It also represents and foreshadows the tone the film will eventually take. Tarantino clearly holds the Manson Family in utter contempt, and he has no reservations about presenting them with utter contempt.
The Manson Family doesn’t have much screen time in the film, and that’s a good thing. They are a lingering threat throughout the film, especially if you know the specifics and dates of how and when the murders took place. You know something is going to happen in a film that has the Manson Family and Sharon Tate as characters central to the plot, but, well, you don’t know what’s going to happen.
All while this is happening, Tarantino takes the time to give us extended scenes with Dalton working on “Lancer”, another television western, or showing clips from “other work” he has done. Tarantino lingers in these scenes and lets them play out. There is even an extended flash back involving Booth and Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). These sequences might seem to slow down the movie, and the argument can be made that it’s Tarantino just wasting time because he can. On the other hand, these sequences go to Tarantino’s love of a time involving television westerns and all sorts of other series filmed in an around Los Angeles during the late 60’s. The shows might not have been critically acclaimed, but they were clearly an important influence on Tarantino. If you liked “Hail, Caesar!” and what the Coen Brothers were trying to say with that film, you’ll like Tarantino’s take on entertainment options in the 60’s.
I’m not going to get into spoilers with this review, but the film takes a rather big shift when it hits the previously mentioned final act. Tarantino takes most of the movie to showcase a time in Los Angeles and Hollywood that he adores, and he then takes the final moments to have a reckoning with what brought it to a close. It is quite a reckoning when it happens. I won’t spill the specifics, but I get the impression the ending of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” will be debated and discussed for a while. It’s unrelenting, but the message Tarantino sends is crystal clear.
Overall, I rather enjoyed “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” as a film that welcomes the audience to play in the sandbox along with its director. Tarantino wants us to be immersed and welcomed into this version of 1969 that he created. The detail work in the film is impressive as the world is filled with ads and other assorted works to promote various TV shows and movies of the time. The cinematography is warm and golden, which, again, shows how Tarantino views this period with reverence. Everything glows and radiates in beautiful colors.
The schlock of the late 60’s, no doubt, shaped the director that Tarantino would become. All the tropes and such from that era of entertainment can be found in his films. Even though that time came to a crashing and violent end, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is his way of coming to terms with its end. I can’t say it is his best film, but I can say it is one of his most personal films.