Once Upon a Time in…Tarantino-land

Quentin Tarantino has a recognizable filmmaking style. A Tarantino film is sure to feature certain actors that he works with regularly like Kirk Douglas or Michael Madsen, quirky conversations in cars, a cool retro setting and violence…lots of graphic violence. Once Upon A Time in…Hollywood has all of that and a talented cast. The story centers around a well-known television actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), who’s career in Westerns is coming to an end and his sidekick and stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). The setting is 1969 Hollywood in the months leading up to the Manson Family Murders and the scenario is the interactions the two have with each other and with the people they come in contact with — day-to-day life for a television actor and his aide-de-camp.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt have a wonderful chemistry. Watching DiCaprio struggling to give an honest performance that impresses his young co-star walks the line between exaggerated and comical to genuinely moving. Brad Pitt is the straight man to DiCaprio’s emotional artist. This is the first film that I’ve seen that lets the actor look his age with close-ups of the lines on his face. He still looks fantastic with his shirt off and Pitt exudes an easy charm and warmth that’s sexy.

In his ninth film, Tarantino has finally let his foot fetish out to dance. Each character is introduced through their footwear. Rick Dalton confident in cowboy boots, Cliff Booth in moccasins, our young starlet Sharon Tate skips into the scene in white gogo boots and there are lots of bare feet for our hippy girls. It’s a quick way to establish the characters. Of course the actress would wear fashionable footwear and Pitt’s stunt double, who’s so chill and secure in his masculinity, can rock moccasins…but it seems out of character for Margot Robbie’s character to take off her boots and have bare feet in a movie theater. And maybe the young hippy chick, played by the luminous Margaret Qualley, would remove her sandals and prop her feet up on the dashboard of the car but it looks awkward and lasts too long in the shot.

There is a tension to the story as the characters go about their lives when the audience anticipates the horrific murders that will shatter their world. Tarantino plays with this tension having Kirk Douglas narrate the timeline on the night of the killings. But first there’s a lots of conversations and driving in cars and a trip to Italy and a new wife…some of it interesting, much of it feels like an excuse for Tarantino to get to create fake movie posters. Having established Sharon Tate as this lovely young woman, now pregnant, and her hip friends hanging out at their home, the tragedy of lost lives will be even greater. Tarantino plays with expectations and then delivers on the graphic violence he’s known for.

You can almost feel Tarantino’s glee at shooting an extended scene of young people being killed in such gruesome manner: close-ups of a dog crunching down on an arm, the dog dragging a body across the floor, a young woman getting her face smashed repeatedly into multiple surfaces and the grand finale of the flame thrower used to torch a still twitching murderous woman. For Tarantino fans, I think the violence is so over-the-top and gratuitous that it becomes comical. As someone who finds violence, especially against women and children, very upsetting — this was torture for me to watch.

If you’re a Tarantino fan, the two-hour running time will be just perfect. You can enjoy his imaginative camera moves and recreation of that time period with cameos by some talented actors. There are brilliant bits of dialogue and lots of cool cars to enjoy. If you’re squeamish over the violence, may I suggest you leave in the long set-up for the killers to make it up the driveway? You’ll have plenty of time to wander the lobby and return for a brief touching moment between Pitt and DiCaprio…and you won’t have to endure the brain scar from the violence.

Drinks with Films Rating: 2 blended margaritas served in retro margarita glasses (out of 5)


  1. Excellent review of a mediocre movie! It felt like a nostalgic romp filled with inside jokes that I wasn’t quite getting. Am I not his target audience? Margot Robbie’s character added nothing to the movie. A teeny bit of sex appeal that related to….nothing really? The old school cars were cute but after watching Jerry’s “Comedians In Cars Drinking Coffee” I felt like there wasn’t proper reverence towards them….and I’m not even a “car guy”. I know Tarantino has watched anime where they get all these ridiculous and awesome angles that make you want to own and drive these vehicles. Tarantino seemed to be saying, “These are the cars from that period and they were silly and used exclusively for Sunday driving.” Really?

    I was, also, mystified by the way Bruce Lee was presented in an unflattering light. Tarantino’s a Bruce Lee fan(isn’t he?) but apparently he wanted to take him down a peg by presenting him as an egotistical show off who met his match with an average run of the mill stunt man? I looked up on old interview to see what Dalton’s personal take was of Bruce and there was nothing to indicate he had any disregard for Bruce at all. As inaccurate as this scene seemed to me….it was probably the highlight of the film.

    Ultimately, I had no idea what Tarantino’s point was. Does he hate hippies, feel very deeply for actors no longer in their prime, and think stunt men are the most under served workers in the film industry? Or…was he just making fun of them? This movie was mostly slow moving and the most tension was during a potential statutory rape scene. Curiously enough the under age girl was the real predator. Am I doubtful that an under worked aging Hollywood stuntman would pass on what many men would consider a lottery ticket during that era? Yes. Yes I am.

    The finale struck me as funny but totally over the top. I left the movie wondering what the point of this movie was. I hope the actors had fun because I was mostly bored and confused. 😉

    1. There’s a whole controversy over the Bruce Lee segment. The Lee family has been very critical of Tarantino’s portrayal and it’s bewildering, since, as you noted, Tarantino is a fan.
      There was no “statutory rape” — the Manson Family girls willing slept with the old man and others in the cult of free love.
      The depiction of Sharon Tate as this lovely aspiring actress wasn’t to give the film sex appeal, I believe it was to heighten the tension. Spoiler alert: you’re supposed to be thinking that she’s about to be murdered. I like that Tarantino subverts history but I can’t stomach the violence. It’s not funny to me.
      There’s an interesting article about one of the Manson Girl’s reactions to the movie: https://www.thedailybeast.com/ex-manson-family-member-dianne-lake-reviews-quentin-tarantinos-once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood

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