How do you solve a problem like Tarantino?
Quentin Tarantino burst onto the scene almost thirty years ago with Reservoir Dogs, a crime movie so influential – so fucking good – that it single-handedly revolutionized the way indie films were made and looked at. It genuinely stands alongside Duel and Blood Simple in terms of being a debut feature (well, I say “debut”; technically, he’d made a film beforehand, the reels of which burnt up in a fire) that was pretty close to perfect. He followed that up with Pulp Fiction, and again with Jackie Brown, two films as close to flawless as they come.
Then something happened, and Tarantino…regressed, I guess is the right word. Look, I still love Kill Bill; for my money, it’s the last capital G-Great movie he’s made. But that love is tinged with some pretty serious reservation, since Kill Bill pioneered some of Tarantino’s worst tendencies as a director, quirks that have haunted him ever since: an utter lack of discipline, ostentatious hyper-violence that doesn’t even pretend to take place in reality, and obscene running lengths. Some of those I can live with – it is pretty fun to watch people explode in the most over-the-top way imaginable – but it’s his late-career aversion to editing that I really take issue with.
Kill Bill is the last film Tarantino made that felt focused in its excesses, if that makes sense. The bizarre digressions into Western iconography and anime-land worked for that story. The same cannot be said of Death Proof, which did its level best to make Tarantino-speak seem unbearably boring. Inglourious Basterds worked fine enough on a chapter-to-chapter basis, but completely failed to tie itself together in its closing moments the way Pulp Fiction had done. Django Unchained managed to scuttle every ounce of goodwill it had built up over its two-hour running time near the beginning of its last act, with one of the most annoying, movie-ruining director cameos ever put to film (complete with Austrailian accent!) And The Hateful Eight is at least 45 minutes too long; and that’s in its SHORTEST form.
On the basis of his first few films alone, Quentin Tarantino deserves his status as pop-culture icon. But as a result of his fame, he’s completely abandoned any of the restraint and focus that made his earlier work so special. His latest films have been too long, too unfocused, and too in need of some serious editing to really compare.
So I had been tepid in my hype for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. While I’ve never outright hated one of his films (even Death Proof, which came close, at least had the good sense to give Zoë Bell a leading role), I was still conscious of the fact that I was about to see a two hour and forty minute movie. That’s only a few minutes shorter than Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, two movies I thought would never fucking end.
More than that, when I first heard that Tarantino was making a “Manson movie”, my heart sank. Movies based around the horrific crimes of Charles Manson and his “family” are already turning into one of the worst subgenres of film ever to exist; while Bad Times at the El Royale was pretty good, and smart about how it incorporated a Manson-like murderer, it must be said that abysmal dreck like The Haunting of Sharon Tate and Wolves at the Door have been the Manson movie norm.
This isn’t the first time Tarantino’s tackled tricky subjects, obviously. I’ve long admired how deftly he’s walked the tightrope of going juuuust far enough, without ever falling into outright exploitation. But Manson is different from the Nazis, or even slavery. He’s more specific, if that makes any sense. This seemed like a bad idea from the jump, and the originally intended release date – meant to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Tate–LaBianca murders – only made things worse.
So it gives me great pleasure to say that, for my money, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino’s late-day masterpiece. It’s a film that feels focused. It feels like it has an honest-to-goodness point. It feels, for all the world, like an anti-late-day Tarantino movie. For the first time since Kill Bill, the overall experience grew on me the more I sat with it, rather than buckling under its ungainly, aussie-accented seams.
To be clear; this is a long movie, one perfectly content with taking its time. Described as a “hangout movie” not unlike Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown, the film mainly focuses on the declining star of Rick Dalton, a famous TV actor whose stab at moviestardom has fizzled out, and his loyal stuntman Cliff Booth. The two of them are very emblematic of the “Old Hollywood” that Tarantino so lovingly remembers; some of the most joyous passages of the film are the fully immersive recreations of Rick’s old Cowboy show, and the painstaking processes that define new auditions.
This has been described as a mid-life crisis movie, which is understandable. It is at times nostalgic to a fault, frequently getting lost in its own period trappings (when Cliff goes to feed his dog, we see every single label in his cabinet). But I think it’s smarter than mere hokey sentimentality. For as idyllic as Tinseltown may seem, we’re keenly aware at all times that it’s a paradise built on a shaky foundation.
That’s where Sharon Tate comes in. Now, I’ve seen reports from other people who felt that she was unnecessary to the film; worse, that she was “boring,” or “one dimensional”. Not so; she is the very heart and soul of this movie. To me, the very best scene in the film concerns Sharon Tate taking an afternoon for herself, and going to see The Wrecking Crew, which she stars in. She slips in unannounced (after sweetly introducing herself to the teller), and spends the next hour or so drinking in the audience’s reaction; an audience that doesn’t know she’s there.
Sharon Tate becomes real again through this movie. We’re reminded that this was a living, breathing person, with hopes and dreams of the future, who loved her friends and her husband (the shadow of Roman Polanski hangs over this movie, as a nonspecific – but very deliberate – reminder of the ugliness beneath the sheen). The same can’t be said of the Manson “family”, who are remembered as they deserve to be; cartoon loonies, high on their own false sense of self-importance and enlightenment.
There are many ways to read what Tarantino’s trying to say with this movie. There’s a lot of subtext going on, some of it clear – there’s a highly effective sequence where Rick’s fake audition for a Western TV show begins to mirror Cliff’s real-life escapade at the Manson compound – and some of it less so. There’s a lot that can be read, for instance, in the scene where Cliff refuses a blowjob from an underage girl, especially in our post-Weinstein world.
For myself, though, I’m just glad we finally have a Tarantino film that invites thought, seems to actually contain layers, and doesn’t vastly overstay its welcome. It’s been a while, old friend. Thanks for ditching the Aussie accent.