Quentin Tarantino is no stranger to movie buffs. And Once Upon a Time in Hollywood continues to feature the themes Tarantino cherishes. With a fully-loaded cast of A-list actors, especially Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, what we witness is more a “buddy film” than the advertised “tribute to the final moments of Hollywood’s Golden Age”. But for the audience who does not know the story of Charles Manson and his grasp on the American collective psyche, the film needs more backstory to fill in plot holes. On the plus side, Tarantino loves cinematic history and Once Upon a Time’s references to the landscape and artifacts of 1969 Hollywood are thoughtfully and minutely reconstructed.
The world around the aging Rick Dalton (Leo DiCaprio), along with his loyal body double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is both fictional and not. Both are co-dependent and struggling with declining careers. The first moon landing a mere three weeks before the Beverly Hills massacre of five people, including the nine-months pregnant Sharon Tate, actress and wife to Roman Polanski, a top movie director of the time, August 1969 was a time of both horror and jubilation.
The viewer who knows about Charles Manson and his notorious bloodbath prepares for the pending violence Tarantino is often criticized for: gratuitous depictions of violence against women. But no one escapes. Without giving too much away, Once Upon a Time builds upon a “what if” narrative. But for viewers who are not familiar with the Charles Manson saga, there is no “what if,” just a senseless action thriller without the irony and fictionalization of history.
And, to add to Once Upon a Time‘s reliance on shock value and stomach-churning bloodletting, especially of one woman’s skull, the only depictions of the two women who have any roles more than a few lines–Sharon Tate (a waste of talented Margot Robbie) and Squeaky, one of Manson’s cult followers (played by the always reliable Dakota Fanning)– are cardboard cutouts in the Tarantino style, posturing with long-legged shots that focus more on their extremities than on what they are saying.
I am not a fan of most of the films produced by Quentin Tarrantino, but there is still something to admire about the attention to detail in reconstructing the time and place, and in the chemistry between Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. And this is a generous reading of what to like about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Note: At almost three hours in length, the “saggy middle” of this movie could have been eliminated with less footage of driving, walking, smoking cigarettes, as well as the pointless Bruce Lee scene.