Once Upon a Time in Hollywood shows Quentin Tarantino operating at his most restrained level since Jackie Brown, offering viewers a surprisingly personal treatise on becoming an artist past your prime, told in a way that sadly left me feeling the most unsatisfied I’ve been with one of his films since Death Proof.
MAJOR SPOILERS AWAIT after the third paragraph, so don't read it if you haven't seen it!
Tarantino has made a lot of noise about being good for ten films before retiring from filmmaking and exploring other mediums. After Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, his ninth film, I finally feel like I understand where he’s coming from. While the film is expertly-crafted as usual, so much of what makes Tarantino such an electric filmmaker is either missing from Hollywood, or executed in such a weirdly inorganic fashion that it doesn't really feel like a Tarantino film. It’s the first time he’s felt old on screen, which is appropriate given the subject matter, but deeply disappointing at the same time given how larger-than-life he's felt for his entire career.
Plenty of what makes him one of the great modern directors is still here, of course. The film is meticulously crafted, full of little details both inside and outside of the frame. Robert Richardson once again delivers a film that is stunning to look at, the colors popping off the screen (and the smoke, my god does he make cigarette smoke look amazing) and sucking us into the haziness of 1969. As expected, Quentin gets terrific performances out of his leads. DiCaprio returns to acting after a four-year post-Revenant break as the pathetic and schlubbier-than-usual Rick Dalton. Brad Pitt shines as his stunt double Cliff Booth, one of the coolest customers Quentin has ever created. Margot Robbie is instantly lovable as Sharon Tate, bringing some nice youthful energy to a film about gettin’ old.
As good as their performances are, there’s still something missing from all of them. Quentin is known for creating heightened characters that all talk and behave like the heightened characters that they are, which makes them exhilarating to watch on screen. That is not the case this time around, and almost everyone is more grounded than usual, their dialogue written and delivered without the energy his words usually explode with. This may actually work for a lot of people who don't like the way QT usually writes, but it felt lacking here. There are a few good exchanges, for sure, but if you’re expecting anything to command your attention like his past films, you’re going to probably be as let down as me. The writing just feels... Normal. It's good, but it's not QT good. This is a guy who routinely makes scenes of people sitting still in a room some of the most exciting scenes in cinema, so it was a bummer to not feel his signature dialogue-driven energy this time around in what is largely a hangout movie.
This film has a distinct lack of tension in it by design, sometimes to its detriment. Hollywood being more of a hangout film doesn't lend itself to being a nailbiting experience, of course, but there were a few moments that felt less effective than they could have been. There’s one scene in the middle when Cliff encounters the Manson cult at Spahn Ranch that is arguably the most tense sequence of the film, but even that scene feels like some of the weakest tension-building of Quentin's career. You can imagine how the rest of the film felt to me if its most tense moments were his least tense ever.
Some of the film's lack of tension stems from a story that doesn’t really build to what it ultimately builds to, and doesn't have a whole lot propelling it forward to begin with. We spend most of the film during a relatively normal weekend in February, jumping between Rick, Cliff, and Sharon Tate as they each have their own quasi-adventures that relate to the theme of being either in or past your prime. All of these stories are fun to be a part of, even if they meander a bit. After two hours in hangout mode, we jump six months into the future to the night of the Manson murders, where the film immediately receives a massive Tarantino-y shot of adrenaline to the heart. As the Manson clan pulls up to Tate's house, angry old Rick Dalton stumbles drunkenly out of his house, pitcher of a recently-blended frozen drink in hand, and almost literally tells the dirty hippies to get off his lawn. They pull away and decide to kill Dalton instead, citing his many roles as a killer on TV as a good motive, unaware that with him in the house is his acid-tripping stuntman and big mean dog, who make short work of the would-be murderers in extremely brutal, glorious, revisionist fashion.
There's some build-up to this wild and exciting conclusion, but dramatically, it does feel somewhat as random as the murders themselves were. Our only exposure to the Manson clan is during Cliff's aforementioned sojourn to the Spahn ranch, but it doesn't really matter that he met them. It makes for a funny moment where a balls-tripping Cliff realizes who he's defending himself from, but that's about it. There's a line early on, where Rick sees Polanski pull up to the house, where he remarks something to the effect of being one pool party with Polanski away from being a star again. In the best moment of this rampage, Rick pulls out a flamethrower (previously shown in one of his films, The 14 Fists of McCluskey) and roasts the final clan member to death while she struggles in his pool, in what may have been the greatest use of Chekov's Flamethrower ever put on film. Afterward, a very much alive Sharon Tate invites Rick into her home for a drink, ending the story on a weirdly hopeful note.
The pool party punchline ending is a blast to watch, and is certainly the high point of the film, but even that didn’t feel like it was satisfyingly earned. Nothing within the text of the film indicates that a mass murder is going to take place in the end, but we all knew that it was going to happen in some way because of how the film was sold to us. It’s been known as Quentin Tarantino’s Manson Movie since it was first announced, and the completely wild ending certainly lives up to that, but the first two hours are something else entirely. On the whole, the film was missing the usual bite and cohesion that Tarantino is known for to make it all come together in a satisfying way. Everything just felt toned down. The characters, the dialogue, the tension, even the needle drops didn't land with the oomph that they usually do, playing mostly in the background over the radio instead of driving the scene forward and dominating the mix. Structurally the film is much looser and messier than his usual methodical chaptering, feeling like a feature length hangout movie followed immediately by a hyperviolent short film pseudo-sequel. Watching a Tarantino film not broken up into chapters felt so alien. Everything about it feels so much more distant than usual. It’s such a stylistic change of pace for him that I’m still wrapping my head around it.
As enjoyable as a lot of it is, I can't remember the last time I left a movie more bummed out than I did leaving Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I’m still figuring out if my disappointment is due to the filmmaking, the filmmaker, or both. There's certainly that pang in my heart seeing one of my artistic heroes getting old, both in life and in a career that he promises will end after his next film. Tarantino's films have always stood larger than life, and it's disarming to see him let his guard down this much and make such a personal film for the first time in his career right before he ends it. There's something very melancholy about this film that transferred directly into me throughout. From the toned down style to the subject matter itself, this is by far QT's most personal and somber project to date. It's certainly a film worth seeing, and one that I definitely will be seeing again to re-assess after I’ve had more time to chew on it. I'm wondering if I'll enjoy it more a second time through, or if it'll still leave me wanting. There are plenty of things to like about it, but the degree to which the rest fell flat for me was shocking and more disappointing than I thought possible. It's like Quentin is finally turning the volume dial down a few notches and settling into his recliner with headphones on, instead of blowing out the speakers and dancing in the middle of the room the way he has his whole career.