Jack Bottomley, Media Correspondent

Review: Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

As the remembrance of the Tate killings recently was in the headlines on the 50th anniversary of the murders, the timing could not be any more impactful for director Quentin Tarantino’s ninth, and supposedly penultimate, motion picture. Sparking controversy and fears when first announced a couple of years back, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood harks back to a moment in history that quite literally changed the film industry, American culture and in some ways the world ever since.

Some of the facts of that fateful night back in 1969 remain clouded by the debates of the years that followed, and half a century later we are still talking about Charles Manson, his followers and these brutal killings. As well as the cultural shift they initiated, from the death knell of hippie culture to the rise of a particular strain of governance and authority. However, Tarantino’s latest is far from a simple coverage of the Manson clan and that night, very far from it. This is a wildly different story altogether.

Set in the midst of late ‘60s Hollywood, at an impending time of forthcoming change, the film sees TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) fearing that his career is on a downward slide and that he’s officially a “has been”. His loyal friend and part time stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) aims to calm his friend’s fears while also trying to escape a shadow from his past. All the while the business continues to alter around them and fresh young actress - and Rick’s next door neighbour - Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) is excited to be entering into this changing movie world. Even though a darkness looms ahead…

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a meditation on what Hollywood was, is and will never be. An ultimately brutal fairytale of film, where ego, on-set lore and revisionism collide. Throughout the picture, real established history is recalled, while other points are remade or re-interpretated. As a result, this is a controversial and very open to interpretation piece of filmmaking, which bares Tarantino’s usual badges (calm down on the feet fetishing Quentin!) but also matures his approach, resulting in a divisive, fierce, bold and actually quite soulful picture (at least I thought so) that is in awe of the movies, the '60s and of its much-publicised subject...and I don't mean Charles Manson.

Much has been made of the film’s gender presentation, Robbie’s role, violence and the representation of real life figures and it’s not hard to see why it has polarised many critics and viewers. Tarantino directs with glee for his era and some of the long scenes and slower pace may wear down those wanting a point to be quickly delivered but despite its hefty running time, the time flew by for me, as the period was engrossingly captured and transformed before my eyes.

This is an interpretation and imagination of the truth, and as its narrative splinters into little dream-like detours, filled with cinema history and film-set fracas, I found myself a hitchhiker to its transportatve spell and journey, before being enthralled by the finale, which delivers a sudden and all-out hill drop of jaw-dropping brutality and plot payoff. It really is a barmy sight to behold the conclusion and it’s one that caps this story and script off rightly.

This is not a Charles Manson story, he is the spectre that lurks for sure, but this is a story of pride, fall, cinema and life, and if Pitt’s Booth is a force of change and DiCaprio’s Dalton a wounded casualty of the industry’s changing face, Robbie’s Tate is the gleaming heart beneath it all.

Tate’s family - despite understandable initial dread - have approved of the film’s handling of her onscreen and I felt that this was very much Tarantino correcting a course of her past. Come the gentle closing shot, it is almost as if her spirit overlooks the violence/resolution with a sense of relief, and a following wonder and excitement of what could have been instead of what was. This film pays her sociable, innocent, soul - as well as the equally fun memories of her friends - a real testament.

DiCaprio and Pitt should surely be knocking on the academy’s door this coming awards season, as Pitt delivers a rough, comical and riveting performance, while DiCaprio likewise unleashes a multi-layered, emotional and staggeringly varied turn. Both showcase their skills and both make flawless leads in Tarantino’s reverential unfolding pop culture revised fairytale. While Margot Robbie’s joyous and often quiet performance harnesses a spellbinding power over the viewer that makes you feel a warm closeness to the character.

Some sterling cameos parade across this drive into the core and around the dark peripheries of Hollywood and from Bruce Dern (in a part initially set for Burt Reynolds before his tragic passing) to Al Pacino, this is a vehicle coated in spectacle but not at the expense of intriguing depths and abhorrent edges. Plus, it has the best canine performance since John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum!

The soundtrack fizzles with on-point audio accompaniment, as the era is reborn in more ways than one, with the future remade to some degree, as the barking mad finale certifies. This is one film that takes its time, enjoys the resources to hand and feels absolutely 100% controlled by its writer and director, and is an absolutely enthralling watch, that will win many over, lose many others and sit with some viewers slowly earning gradual admiration in their collective minds.

Tarantino is not for everyone and in this current climate it is an accomplishment a film like this can even still exist but thankfully it does and Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is an amazing act of remembrance and redemption.

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Al Pacino
Release Date: Out Now