Before I went to see it I'd heard criticism from people that it was "not a movie, just a bunch of scenes."
Well, like the film's considerable length, this is a conscious and deliberate line of attack by Tarantino. His movie is, after all, an explicit homage to Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West...
And here's what Tarantino said about Leone's epic (in Chris Frayling excellent book about that film):
"Whereas in his other movies... he's still trying to tell a story... By the time he made Once Upon a Time in the West he was able to streamline it so that it's just set piece after set piece after set piece."
So, there you have it. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is also set piece after set piece after set piece.
And while there might be one or two of them that are expendable, most are varying degrees of delightful.
And some are simply stunning.
This is a story of a TV Western star, Rick Dalton (Leo DiCaprio) and his stunt double buddy Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick is trying to make headway in movies, but his career is on the decline and he's drinking too much.
In fact, Rick is so sure that he's washed up that he breaks down in tears outside a restaurant while waiting for the valets to fetch his car.
"Don't cry in front of the Mexicans," Cliff admonishes him.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is often hilarious, and it lovingly evokes Los Angeles in 1969. At first it's just a rambling series of anecdotes about Rick and Cliff, interweaving them with real people from that time and place.
Most notably there's a cameo from Damian Lewis, who is an eerily perfect choice with his striking resemblance to Steve McQueen.
But then we discover that Rick lives next door to Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) on Cielo Drive, the home where Sharon would be savagely murdered by the cult followers of Charlie Manson (Damon Herriman).
With this revelation Tarantino ingeniously sets a time bomb ticking and we know that however inconsequential and amusing his film may appear to be, it is inexorably heading somewhere very dark and violent indeed.
It's in the depiction of the Manson family that this film scores most strongly. They are brilliantly cast and performed, giving an impression that is disturbingly off kilter and deeply scary. In particular, Margaret Qualley is indelibly haunting as Pussycat.
And there's a scene where Cliff goes out to the run-down ranch where the cult members live, which is almost unbearably suspenseful. We are terrified, not knowing if he'll get out of there alive.
Tarantino correctly judges this "one of the best scenes I’ve ever done," and references the work of Peckinpah and Polanski.
He also says, "I had been setting up Cliff as this indestructible guy. And yet you’re afraid for him."(*)
Absolutely right. It's a masterful sequence.
But all the while that time bomb is ticking, and we know we're heading steadily towards that nightmare night on Cielo Drive...
However, this is Quentin Tarantino, who had no hesitation in rewriting the history of World War Two so that Hitler ends up shot dead in a movie theatre.
So I was gratified and relieved to see the wild, mind blowing and uproarious climax he fashioned for his new film.
Of course, there's a question to be asked about whether it's acceptable to repurpose such an horrific personal tragedy as a pop culture collage.
But Tarantino apparently made his peace with Sharon Tate's widower, Polanski, and her sister, Debra.
So I suggest we all just relax and enjoy Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — did I mention that it also features Sayuri, who is superb in the role of Cliff's dog, Brandy?
She gives a great performance despite being fed cans of rat flavoured and raccoon flavoured dog food.
(*These quotes are taken from an excellent in-depth interview with Tarantino by Mike Fleming at Deadline. Image credits: a wonderful wealth of posters courtesy of Imp Awards.)
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