SPOILER ALERT: I won’t get into overt spoilers, but I will discuss some of the film’s plot. If you have not seen the film, I encourage you to watch the film before reading this review. If you’d like to see a note on the film’s mature content before watching it, you can skip down to the bottom of this post.
Quentin Tarantino famously worked in a movie rental store before becoming the generationally-influential director he is today, and that experience gave him a deep love for Hollywood that has always seeped into his work. He is also known, possibly more than anything else, for his use of stylized violence in his films. With all that in mind, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a story that is more in chemistry with Tarantino’s storytelling techniques than the infamous killing of Sharon Tate at the hands of the Manson family on August 9, 1969.
This was a defining moment in cultural history, let alone in Hollywood. Acclaimed author Joan Didion famously said of the killings, “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969.”
If this is the perfect foundation for a Tarantino story, it is also a gruesome real-life tale with real victims who should not be considered mere fodder for a film script. That Tarantino considers and elevates this fact shows his mastery of this story, even as he forms it to his own will.
Tarantino is one of the most singular and unique directors we’ve ever seen. When you finish watching a Tarantino film, you know that no other director could have made such a film. His fingerprints are all over his work, and you’ll never confuse his work for anyone else’s. That audiences are still engaging with such unique and original works is something to be celebrated, indeed.
As with all of Tarantino’s films, the well-drawn characters give ample opportunities for these actors to really sink their teeth into the performances. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt are simply electric in their roles as actor Rick Dalton and his stunt double Cliff Booth. Dalton was once a great TV star, but his career has begun to stall. He is riddled with insecurity, and he has a penchant for too much drinking. Booth has never risen above being Dalton’s stunt double, and yet he seems completely content. The two make for an incredible on-screen duo, and they certainly showcase why they are two of our most versatile actors. But my favorite performance in the film comes from Margot Robbie as Tate.
There has been a lot of discussion about Robbie’s total amount of dialogue in the film. While I understand the thought process that has caused some to question this, I think the argument is flawed. The implication there is that an actor needs dialogue to impact a film, but Robbie stakes her claim to the film by the incredible work she does without a lot of dialogue. At the same time, I think Tarantino’s restraint with the character of Sharon Tate in the film is intentional.
The power of this film is its theme of reclamation. This is most notably included with the way Tate’s legacy is handled in the film. At one key point, Robbie as Tate walks into a theater to watch a film in which she is a character. On the screen, we see footage of the real-life Sharon Tate in the film. Tate’s lost legacy is the film’s backbone, and the way Tarantino plays with history in the second half of the film is clearly meant to be an acknowledgment of Tate’s talent and a reclamation of her lost life and career.
Throughout Tarantino’s career, he’s been known for including callbacks to his cinematic influences. He does that here, but he also adds in another wrinkle - including callbacks to his own films. Inglourious Basterds alone (my personal favorite Tarantino movie) comes in with multiple mentions (i.e. one of the Italian directors with whom Rick Dalton works is Antonio Margheriti, the Italian director who is hilariously name-dropped in Inglourious Basterds). This makes Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Tarantino’s most self-referential and self-aware film yet. It is a very personal story for him because, in many ways, it is about the power of movies themselves.
Now, as you might expect, a Tarantino film where the Manson family has a part in the plot contains its fair share of violence. At the same time, there is less violence in this film than I expected. Most of it is saved for a scene near the end. That particular scene is graphic in the way that Tarantino has become known for. But overall, I would not call this one of Tarantino’s more violent films.
Many of Tarantino’s most recent films take historical occurrences and flip them on their heads. This film is no different. But you have to keep in mind that Tarantino is not telling a historical story when he does this. He is using historical characters and places to tell his own story. A character like Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), for instance, is not meant to be a stand-in for the real-life martial arts legend. Instead, Lee is used as a plot device here to show the depths of Booth’s skill as a stunt double. The most notable instance of this certainly comes at the end when the fateful night of Tate’s murder is given its own treatment by Tarantino.
All in all, Tarantino shows once again why he is one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed directors. This is a film that is completely original, and it is good to know that such films can still be successful. It contains fantastic performances, and you get some of Tarantino’s usual visual flair. While I didn’t feel that this was Tarantino’s best, it’s a fine film in its own right. Movies have the power to change a lot, and in Tarantino’s hands that even includes history.
NOTE ON CONTENT: This film is violent. You probably didn’t need me to tell you that since all of Tarantino’s films are violent. It is not as extensive in violence as some of his films have been, but the scenes which contain violence are quite graphic. There is also a lot of profanity in the film. The only sexual content to speak of comes in the form of one line referring to a sex act and characters who wear some revealing clothing. There is no graphic sexual content or nudity in the film. One character is shown using drugs.