****THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!!! SPOILERS AHEAD!! YOU’VE BEEN WARNED!!****
My Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
My Recommendation: SEE IT.
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, is the fictional story of fading television star Rick Dalton and his stunt double Cliff Booth, as they navigate Hollywood during the turbulence of 1969. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Dalton and Brad Pitt as Booth, with supporting turns from Margot Robbie, Bruce Dern, Kurt Russell and a cavalcade of other actors.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino’s 9th feature film and like all of his other movies it is a cultural event. With two of the biggest movie stars in the world on the marquee, and one of the most recognizable directing talents in the business at the helm, this movie was bound to stir up interest. Add in the fact that it is an unabashed homage to Hollywood history that also mixes in the toxically intriguing Manson family and you have a recipe for drawing a lot of attention. While I have loved some Tarantino films and loathed some others, I recognize his genius, and part of that genius is making movies that stir controversy and attract enormous amounts of both good and bad attention.
I went to see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood on the Friday morning of its official opening. The 10 AM screening was pretty full…full enough that I had to endure not one but two elderly couples sitting on either side of me talking throughout the movie like they were sitting in their own living rooms. Even after very politely and delicately asking them to please not talk, they continued anyway. As my buddy Steamroller Johnny astutely observed, “at some point old people think the rules of the world no longer apply to them”. Despite the incessant and idiotic yammering of these old fools, the likes of which included such gems as “remember Mannix? Oh yeah…I remember Mannix!” and “Where did Leo go? Why don’t they tell us where Leo went?”, I soldiered on to the end of the movie and much to my broke lawyer’s chagrin, never once smashed anyone’s head in.
I must admit that my first impressions of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood were not overly positive. Besides the distracting moronity of the decrepit couples around me, I thought the film looked and sounded sub-par. The visuals were terribly imprecise and muddled, and the sound was atrociously bad, with Tarantino’s constant use of music suffocating the dialogue. The visual darkness and audio messiness made me feel I was watching the movie underwater. Even though I saw the movie in a high end art house theatre, I blamed the projector for the technical mess as the screening I attended used a digital projector which is how most movies are displayed nowadays. After leaving the theatre I shook my head at the sad state of film projection in America and what a crime it is to demean the art of cinema in such an egregious way.
Another first impression I had was that this movie was two hours and forty minutes long but ultimately did not do much considering it is historical fiction and could have done absolutely anything it wanted. I sort of felt like…is that all there is? Is that all you can come up with? it felt really…limited…at least in terms of the story.
Needless to say, while I didn’t hate the movie, I didn’t love it either, and felt it landed somewhere in the bottom half of the Tarantino canon, ahead of The Hateful Eight and behind Inglorious Basterds. Then, out of both frustration and curiosity, I decided to see the film again, except this time to see it in 35mm…as it was intended to be seen. 35mm screenings are pretty rare nowadays but Tarantino usually sets up special screenings where you can see his movies either in 35 or 70mm. It took some effort as I had to track down the theatres and special screening times for the 35mm print, but I did it and then went and saw it once again on Monday at noon.
Let me tell you…the difference between digital and 35mm is like night and day in every single way. In 35 the film is gorgeous to look at, the colors and contrast are distinct, and the visuals precise and specific. As much as the look of the film improved, the sound made an even more gargantuan leap. In 35mm the sound is astounding, as the music really pops and the mix is as clear as a bell…no more dialogue pulled under the tide of music.
The second viewing, much to my delight, also gave me a much clearer perception and understanding of the narrative and the sub-text. It certainly helped that I didn’t have to listen to elderly conversations about Mannix and could focus on the action on screen, but I was also aided by just being able to let the film wash over me as opposed to figure out what will happen next.
My second viewing changed my entire opinion of the film…and it quickly skyrocketed out of the bottom tier of Tarantino movies and into the upper echelon if not the Mount Rushmore of his canon.
Tarantino has always gotten great performances from his cast and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is no exception. The entire cast is stellar, with Margaret Qualley (a 2017 Breakout Performance of the Year Mickey Award Winner!), Bruce Dern, Mike Moh, Al Pacino and Julia Butters doing terrific supporting work.
As for the leads…Leonardo DiCaprio is at his very best in this movie. DiCaprio perfectly embodies the self-destructive, self-absorbed desperation that is epidemic in Tinseltown. His Rick Dalton is a star who is fading fast who represents an era and archetype that is under siege. DiCaprio’s Dalton is barely able to keep his mind and body in tact as he tries to navigate the minefield of semi-stardom in an entertainment business going through as much upheaval as the rest of the country in 1969….which is eerily similar to 2019.
DiCaprio gives Dalton a subtle but very effective stutter and stammer that reveals a mind deteriorating after years of alcohol abuse. Dalton’s stutter and stammer indicate he is no longer able to speak his mind and do it clearly. His stutter/stammer show a man second guessing himself and his entire life.
Dalton is also in a perpetual state of cough and spits up gallons of phlegm as he is metaphorically dying on the inside. Dalton smokes and drinks like a condemned man…which is what he really is. Dalton is the archetypal American Male…the Cowboy…and in 1969 that version of American Male was losing its standing and its balance, and in 2019 it is an outright villain. It isn’t until Dalton describes a novel he is reading about a cowboy who has outlived his usefulness and grows more and more useless as everyday passes, that his plight goes from being unconscious to conscious, and it devastates him.
DiCaprio has had moments of greatness in his acting career, most notably as a mentally challenged teen in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and as a depraved slave owner in Django Unchained, but Rick Dalton is by far his most complex and frankly, greatest acting accomplishment, and he is deserving of not only a Best Actor nomination but a win.
Brad Pitt plays the stuntman Cliff Booth with all the movie star aplomb he can muster. Pitt’s work is much more straight forward than DiCaprio’s, but no less effective. Booth is an enigmatic character…at once cool but also combustible. Pitt’s charisma oozes off the screen and he and DiCaprio have an interestingly uneven chemistry that is compelling to watch. Booth seems like a combination of the cult 1970’s Native American action hero Billy Jack (one of my favorites) and Burt Reynolds character Lewis Medlock from Deliverance. He is, unlike DiCaprio’s Dalton, unambitious, but also unlike Dalton, he is the genuine article in terms of rugged, old school masculinity. Booth is no faux tough guy, he is an actual tough guy…the epitome of a real man in that he will kick the shit out of you if you deserve it, even if you’re Bruce Lee. And while Booth is a red-blooded man who is attracted to an alluring and eager teenage girl…his moral code won’t allow him to consummate such an ethically dubious act. And it is of note that the teen in question, named Pussycat, is at one point standing in front of a rainbow colored building, no doubt a strip club, named Pandora’s Box.
Margot Robbie plays Sharon Tate and there has been much made about the paucity of her dialogue. The usual suspects are crying misogyny due to her role being “less than" her male co-stars. I find this sort of thinking to be so tiresome and vapid as to be absurd. As for Robbie’s actual performance…it is utterly spectacular. Robbie’s Tate is bursting with life for every second she appears on film. Robbie has filled her Tate with such a powerful and specific intentionality she is like a supernova of magnetism.
The Tate character is the embodiment of life, potential and the archetypal feminine. Tate is bursting with life, literally and figuratively, and her effervescence cannot be contained. When she walks down the street she seems to float or bounce, the earth barely able to grasp her ebullient spirit.
Tarantino’s decision to use actual footage of Tate in the film is a masterstroke, as he successfully pays homage to her and humanizes her at the same time. Tarantino takes Tate out of the clutches of not only the Manson gang but of the culture that has turned her into nothing but a headline and symbol. Sharon Tate was a person, a real person with hopes and dreams and aspirations and the Mansonites snuffed that out…and Tarantino reminds us of the depth of that loss without ever being heavy-handed or maudlin.
The sub-text of the film is one of a battle between traditional masculinity and femininity and the assault upon them by “woke” culture. Tate and Dalton’s wife Francesca and Booth’s dog Brandy represent the traditional feminine archetype and Dalton and Booth are two halves of the traditional male archetype in the film…and the Manson family? They are representative of our new cultural wave…they are liberalism gone awry…they are “The Woke”. In a brilliant twist Tarantino makes this connection abundantly clear as he casts one of the most grating and loathed woke apostles, Lena Dunham, as one of the leaders of the Manson gang at Spahn ranch.
The gaggle of Manson women at Spahn Ranch are the neo-feminists of our age as they are little more than harpies who incessantly yap like neutered lap dogs in the presence of genuine masculinity (Booth). To quote Reservoir Dogs, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood asks modern day neo-feminists represented in the film as Manson women, “you gonna bark all day little doggie, or are you gonna bite?” Of course, these women do not bite when they first meet Booth…they sit and stay when told…and later when they do try to bite, the hounds of hell are released and these women serve as nothing but chum to the big dogs that do bite.
When the female Manson acolytes scream at Booth as he pulverizes a hippie dude at the Spahn ranch, they symbolize the nagging neo-feminists/woke brigade who say a lot but do nothing. They express their love for the weakling and cowardly Mansonite man getting the Booth treatment, but they don’t help him, they just touch their hearts empathetically and mouth their support. It is also worth noting that these woke women may softly proclaim their love for their hippy brethren, but they want to have actual sex with the real man…Cliff Booth. Ultimately when “the woke” women do trifle with Cliff Booth, he obliterates them. Booth and his faithful canine companion unleash a fury upon the woke and smash their heads into dust, no doubt because their heads are empty, as they are incapable of any thought…only regurgitation.
Speaking of dogs…maybe my favorite character in this entire film is Brandy the pit bull, who is Cliff Booth’s beloved pet. Brandy is occasionally a lap dog, but only because she wants affection, not protection. Brandy is a female…but unlike her Manson family/neo-feminist/woke counterparts, she is no bark and all bite. Brandy is the embodiment of loyalty and when unchained she opens the gates of hell upon anyone who would try to disrupt the order of her universe. Brandy may be subservient to Cliff, as he is the one who feeds her and directs her fury when necessary, but she also ferociously defends the traditional feminine in the form of Dalton’s young bride, Francesca.
At both of the screenings I attended, the audience cheered when the Mansonites get their comeuppance…and that is because it is so deliciously satisfying. In our culture The Woke are intolerant of intolerance but are totally intolerable. Tarantino is basically giving voice to people who are sick to death of the incessant woke posing in our culture by saying, “Hey assholes, you want equality…here it is…a can of dog food smashed in your fucking face”. The Woke are, in their own way, Nazis, and Tarantino treats them as such as he has Dalton torch them just like he does the Nazis in his hit World War II movie The Fourteen Fists of McCloskey, and just like Tarantino did in Inglorious Basterds.
In a piece at The Ringer about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Alison Herman wrote “the Manson family aren’t Nazis, or slave owners, or even Bill (from Kill Bill); they were young, manipulated, drugged-out kids” and thus “…watching Rick take a flamethrower to one feels a lot less cathartic and a lot more uncomfortable”. One need look no further to find the vacuity of woke ideology than Ms. Herman’s quote. The young women and man (Tex Watson) getting their faces kicked in, bitten off and torched in the fantasy of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, in reality brutally murdered Sharon Tate as she begged for the life of the child in her belly, as well as Abigail Folger, Jay Sebring and Wojciech Frykowski with the utmost cruelty, savagery and viciousness. They are not drugged up and confused girls anymore than the SS were noble patriots fighting for the German homeland. Ms. Herman’s woke inspired, insipid thinking is prevalent throughout our culture and is a leading cause of the epidemic of mental myopia verging on retardation in our nation. It is Ms. Herman’s thinking that Tarantino smashes in the face with a can of dog food, gets devoured by a pit bull and then gets lit up by a flamethrower…and deservedly so.
Tarantino also deftly plays with audience perception in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. The film is obviously a fairy tale and another bit of historical fiction/wish fulfillment from Tarantino, and it plays with this fact throughout. Tarantino subtly but continuously keeps asking the audience what is real? Is it a blind man who watches tv? Is it a man who claims he’s never been to prison yet says he was on a Houston chain gang for breaking a cop’s jaw? Or is it a man who allegedly killed his lusciously-bottomed, nagging wife or is that just rumor/lie/legend too? What about Dalton, who hates hippies but looks a lot like Manson in his Lancer costume when he gives his great performance…or Booth, who is adversarial with the hippies too but partakes of an acid laced cigarette he buys from a hippie girl?
At times the movie is a daydream within a fairy tale within a nightmare….and that makes it a hypnotically compelling film. Tarantino expertly captures the dream state that is Los Angeles…and Hollywood…a dream state that is so bright during the day as to be blinding, and so dark at night as to be deadly. Hollywood during the day is, like Sharon Tate, beautiful and full of potentialities. When night descends on Los Angeles it becomes a city of menace…the city of Charles Manson, mass murderers, serial killers, street gangs, violent lawless cops…a shadow city of predators and prey.
The ending of the movie is a combination of the dream/nightmare that leads up to it. After the “real men” Booth and Dalton save the day, greatly assisted by the traditional females in the house, Brandy and Dalton’s wife Francesca, the movie shifts to what should be a happy ending, but which feels extremely unsettling.
As Dalton stands at the end of his driveway, he is greeted by Jay Sebring, who seems like a ghostly apparition at the gates of heaven, asking what happened. Sebring is reminiscent of a ghost stuck in the place of his death, in this case Cielo Drive, who is unaware of what happened to them. Sebring and Dalton are then joined by the haunting and ghostly disembodied voice of Sharon Tate over the intercom. Tate invites Dalton up to the house for a drink…and the gates slowly open for him to enter. This is Rick Dalton walking into the gates of heaven (Tarantino’s version of heaven anyway). Dalton…the symbol of the 1950’s all-American cowboy archetype…is dead and he is going to mix and mingle with Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring and the others who did not survive the cataclysm of the 60’s.
Cliff Booth is technically alive at film’s end but physically injured (in the thigh…which in biblical stories/Jungian terms is symbolic of the genitals - which leaves Booth emasculated…just like Tex Watson who gets his balls chewed off by Brandy…and the hippie dude who Booth beats at the camp…who had no balls to begin with) and mentally altered from a hippie delivered acid laced cigarette. Although he avoided the moral trap of Pussycat, he ingested the poison cigarette willfully…like Adam eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge…for this sin he is banished from Eden. After Dalton declares his true friendship with Booth, Cliff is rushed away to a hospital…but in reality he too is gone…disappeared into the L.A. night never to be seen again.
The only ones left alive at the conclusion of the film are Francesca and Brandy…but they are sleeping in the bedroom, no doubt dreaming up the scenario played out over the preceding two and a half hours of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, where real men/traditional masculinity saved the day and real women/traditional feminine got to appreciate them for it.
In conclusion, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is a staggeringly rich, layered and thoughtful film that is entertaining both as art and as popular cinema. I highly recommend you see it and even if it takes more effort…see it in 35 mm. Tarantino is a polarizing filmmaker, and this movie will no doubt receive a great deal of enmity from politically correct critics and their woke minions in our culture. The bottom line is this, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is a gigantic and well-deserved fuck you to The Woke, and that is what makes it so deliciously entertaining, but what makes the movie so poignant, insightful and exceedingly relevant is that it is aware that it is pure fantasy, and that in reality The Woke have won the culture war and cinema, and the rest of us, are all the worse for it.