Movies, murder, and Manson.
Long before Quentin Tarantino became a household name thanks to the likes of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, Tarantino was just an ecstatic, side-eyed cinephile whose entire upbringing was brought up thanks to the movies. At 14 he wrote a parody screenplay to Burt Reynolds’ 1977 hit Smokey and the Bandit called Captain Peachfuzz and the Anchovy Bandit. At 15 he dropped out of high school and worked as an usher for an adult movie theater called Pussycat Theatre. Then in his 20’s, he worked for five years at a video store before going to work as a production assistant for Dolph Lundgren’s workout videos. It wouldn’t be long after until he wrote his first full-length screenplay for Robert Rodriguez’s 1996 film From Dusk Till Dawn. At nearly every corner, movies have come to define Tarantino and a part of his life. If he were any more into movies, he’d be a cinema projector and have film reels flowing through his veins.
I feel his unorthodox upbringing fuels, at least partly, his fascination behind Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, a movie that feels equally as crazy and side-wined as Tarantino’s life has been, but in many ways, also serves as a personal and heartfelt homage to the movies. Oh, and Charles Manson and his murderous cult are involved in this movie as well. If movies, murder, and the Manson family tied into one storyline doesn’t describe a Quentin Tarantino movie, then nothing ever will.
In this devilishly wacky and zany dark comedy, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt play a big-time TV star and his stunt double, both of which are looking for work in the dog-eat-dog world of 1960’s Hollywood. Their adventures into relevance take them everywhere in Hollywood to meet several famous celebrities, including Steve McQueen, Bruce Lee, Wayne Maunder, James Stacy, and Jay Sebring. All while this is going on, famed film director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his actress wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) move in next door to them, all while a strange man stalks them throughout the neighborhood.
How does the Manson family murders tie into this story about Hollywood hijinks and high-profile celebrities? I’m not telling you. Part of the joy of Tarantino’s screenplays is that they play against the audiences’ expectations. That’s one of his greatest strengths as a writer – the unpredictability of his stories. Who could have expected, after all, that John Travolta would die halfway through Pulp Fiction, only to be revived through a flashback much later? Who also could have expected that both Leonardo DiCaprio and Christoph Waltz would be killed by the end of the second act in Django Unchained and that Django would have to spend the rest of the movie fighting a racist black man? And who also could have predicted that Inglorious Basterd’s ending would include riddling Adolf Hitler’s smarmy head full of bullet holes?
Time and time again, Tarantino has proved how he can flip expectations on the audience’s heads and deliver some of the most quirky, unusual, and shocking stories ever put on film. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is no exception. It has all of the cleverness and wit of a Tarantino screenplay, but with twice as much satire and self-awareness. How do you think this movie will play out? Now do a complete 180 and go the exact opposite direction of what you’re expecting. That is Once Upon A Time In Hollywood in a nutshell, and it’s ingenious because of it.
But it isn’t just Tarantino’s writing skills that are on full display here: it’s also his expert craftsmanship and direction. Most of his movies feature gratuitous blood and gore as a common trademark of his, with it most of the time aimed towards his male character’s genitalia. And like clockwork, this movie also features a variety of violence that has Tarantino’s stamp of approval. What’s curious is that it isn’t a prominent feature throughout the film. In fact, the gory violence is mostly absent until the third act, where Tarantino finally lets loose in his typical nutty fashion. Most of the movie even serves as a staunch critique of violence in mainstream media, how it wears at the mind and desensitizes its audience to macabre bloodshed and sickening imagery. Tarantino’s own filmography is a prime example of this, as his movies have gotten progressively more violent ever since he released Reservoir Dogs in 1992. Does that make him a hypocrite, then, to critique and examine violence and its cultural impact while celebrating and relishing in it at the same time? Possibly, but this movie doesn’t examine cultural violence like it’s an issue to solve but rather as an inevitable quality of entertainment. I appreciate Tarantino’s introspection into observing that issue, even if he isn’t exactly exempt from it.
I would be remiss if I did not mention Leonardo DiCaprio or Brad Pitt. Obviously, they are both incredibly talented and charismatic actors that have developed their own style and likeness similar to Quentin Tarantino. Perhaps that’s why they work so well together in this movie. Pitt succeeds in being the sly, slick, Cool Hand Luke-type character that remains level-headed and calm through all circumstances, even when they’re extraneous or unusual. DiCaprio, meanwhile, is an especially ecstatic character. It’s funny to watch him hyperventilate over the smallest of inconveniences, or damn near tear up when he’s told he should star in a spaghetti western. I like that about DiCaprio, how he can switch from such challenging roles such as Hugh Grant in The Revenant to more comedic and clumsy roles such as Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. It really demonstrates his range as an actor and shows how well he can take on an assortment of characters, no matter how different they may be.
I feel like Once Upon A Hollywood may end up being incredibly divisive, both towards the passionate fans of Tarantino’s work and those who can’t stand him and his wacky, off-beat style. To me, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood embodies Tarantino’s strongest traits as a writer and a director without veering too far into being excessive or self-indulgent. Dare I say it’s my favorite Tarantino film? I’m not sure if I’m quite there yet, but it’s definitely in my top two alongside Pulp Fiction. However you may feel about Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, I can only speak for myself and how I feel about it. On that note, I will say that by the end of the movie, I was shocked, revolted, and incredibly disturbed by what I saw. I was also rolling in my seat dying of laughter. That might say more about me than it does Quentin Tarantino, but hey, that’s the movies for you.