Back in 2015 on a press tour for The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino stated: “I actually think if you’re going to call yourself a Western director today, you need to do at least three [films].”
The famed director has been nothing but open about his love for the genre, leaving fans hopeful for a third western from the man to solidify his place as a great western director. With Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, his ninth feature, they got it. Well. Kind of.
Once Upon a Time stands as more of meta-western, than an actual western itself. Hell, it was even named after one of the most famous westerns of all time.
The film opens with something a highlight reel of Rick Dalton’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) career. First up is a glimpse of Rick’s heyday through a TV ad for his show Bounty Law, followed by an interview on set. Next up shows his jump to film through clips of his movies Tanner & The Fourteen Fists of McCluskey. Both of which are introduced in a meeting between Rick and Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino), in which Schwarz propositions the idea of starring in a Spaghetti Western to Dalton. That brings us to Dalton’s downfall.
Rick is totally opposed to the idea of making a movie outside of America, the country that once made him great, being too stuck in the past to realise that the country has moved on without him. With the backdrop of 60s Hollywood acting as a metaphor for the Wild West, it is now every man for himself. Rick, a lone gunslinger, is merely fighting for scraps and relevance. His only company is his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), himself a relic of the past.
It is this idea of transition that gives the film its key narrative. Rick and Cliff wander helplessly through Hollywood, taking what little work they can. For Rick, this is playing “the heavy” in occasional one-off TV guest appearances. For Cliff, this is hanging out on back lots hoping to get work. All the while, Hollywood fills up with fresh new faces like Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha). For the majority of the film’s runtime, that is the movie. People simply doing things. More Coen-esque than it is Tarantino.
Whilst Rick and Cliff are doing their thing Sharon Tate is also going about her daily life, with very little dialogue, or action. Tarantino just lets her live. It’s a decision that has been controversial, but allowing the audience to see Tate for who she really was, in the simplest of ways, is frankly beautiful. To take a person who tragically died fifty years ago and give them even a few more minutes of life in this way is wonderful.
In the background of all of this lie the Manson Family. Their presence sends chills up the audience’s spines simply by existing, due to the widely known fate of Sharon Tate at their hands. This all builds up to a fantastic crescendo that promises one of the best payoffs of Tarantino’s career.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is so much more than your average Tarantino picture. In fact, it is probably the least Tarantino movie he has ever made. Less violence, more comedy, and a much slower pace than usual (though it still flies by). Tarantino has created, by far, one of his most complex features to date. Mixed with his outstanding rewriting of history, Once Upon a Time is up there with Tarantino’s best.
Screening in 35mm at Edinburgh Filmhouse until Thursday 5 September 2019