Hollywood in 1969 is all change – hippie love is about to come to an end, and a new generation of onscreen stars means tough times for TV cowboy Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his friend/stunt man Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). The pair try to reignite their careers in an industry they barely recognise, while rising star Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) is finding her own feet.
Tarantino’s ninth feature romantically reflects on the end of an era in Hollywood that coincided with social change across the U.S. This sprawling, shambling film is beautiful in its own way, and has a lot of heart (with a lot of similarities to fellow director Alfonso Cuarón’s intimate Roma). But Once Upon a Time… is simply too incoherent to have a lasting impression.
With a monstrous 161-minute run time, it’s still not Tarantino’s lengthiest. And yet the film’s meandering nature makes it seem so much longer. It lacks the taught, razor-sharp tension of The Hateful Eight or Django Unchained’s ensemble of compelling characters. His latest film is a long-winded love letter to his adopted hometown – but like a note from an admirer, it often fails to say anything coherent. The film’s marketing reflects this confusion. Ostensibly set in the shadow of the Manson Family’s murders, we actually get very little insight into the group’s dynamics. The man himself is only onscreen for two minutes, and his family of hippie drifters are thinly fleshed-out at best (a great performance from Margaret Qualley aside). Sharon Tate and the other victims of the August 1969 attacks are also marginalised to a side show, which is a shame. It’s as if Tarantino was making two films that had to be smashed into one. Focusing on the story of a fading actor in a new Hollywood would have been compelling enough without the Manson afterthought.
A lot of Once Upon a Time… is genuinely interesting and extremely well-shot, though. Tarantino clearly poured his soul into this, and you can see it reflected in the meticulously crafted world we see on screen. Many of his trademarks are present – close up shots of feet, near comical violence, and an awesome soundtrack of 60s music. The film also returns to the stylish, wandering form of story – à la Pulp Fiction – that made Tarantino famous. His screenplay, despite needing another round of editing to trim the fat, is solid. It twists and loops an interesting narrative into the lives of (mostly) fleshed-out and engaging characters.
DiCaprio steals the show as the hyper-sensitive-but-supposedly-tough-guy Rick Dalton. His manic behaviour pushes him to near caricature levels at times, but this is cleverly diluted with moments where Dalton shows real insecurity. It’s in glimpses we see while Dalton acts, either as he tries to revive his career or in vignettes of films past, that we can appreciate the depth of DiCaprio’s performance. Subtle and tumultuous at the same time, it’s wonderful. Pitt also excels as Cliff Booth – he perfects his character’s relaxed affability while also selling a darker tough streak. The rest of the ensemble cast, including Kurt Russell, are all compellingly Tarantino-esque. Robbie is the sole acting let-down because of her lack of screen time. When she is on camera she sparkles as Sharon Tate, but we get little of anything from her story. This confusion of what Once Upon a Time… wants to say cuts it a long way short of excellence.
Once Upon a Time… fails to live up to the hype and the fist-pumping qualities of his other films. It’s compelling in parts, but too long and messy to be great. 6.5/10.