Film Review | Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Pure indulgence at its best

For his supposedly penultimate feature, Quentin Tarantino delivers a surprisingly chilled out and cheekily pleasant immersion into the twilight years of Hollywood’s Golden Age

The accusation of self-indulgence is a funny thing, when applied to art. Sure, we know what people mean when they fling it: art that is aggressively, navel-gazingly self-referential, to the point of distancing the viewer away from it by dint of being so masturbatory that the only one having fun is clearly just the creator themselves. It tends to be a label that sticks to non-mainstream film-makers in particular – Danish provocateur Lars Von Trier gets lumped with it quite often – though whether or not another serial offender, Quentin Tarantino, still counts among the number of indie wunderkinds scratching a living from off on the fringes is a debatable point.

Certainly, Tarantino has risen from the depths of the early 90s indie Hollywood renaissance – propped up in no small part by the trail-blazing successes of revisionist crime capers Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) – to establish himself as a box office smashing auteur who can now paint big, and with the expensive supplies of the period piece too.

Post the epic kung-fu duology that was Kill Bill Vols. I and II (2003 and 2004, respectively), Tarantino has decided to play God in an additional way to the implicit, already-expected perks afforded to a writer-director of any stripe. Inglourious Basterds (2009) allowed him to rewrite history and kill Hitler, and Django Unchained (2012) gifted the history of American slavery with an avenging angel.

Now, Tarantino turns his lens – or rather, lensman: the award-winning and supremely on-form cinematographer Robert Richardson – to the last days of the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, where the spirit of 1969 was just about ready to swoop in and transform this factory of largely toothless entertainment into the kind of raw and gritty cinema that would colour Tarantino’s early output.

I won’t spoil exactly how Tarantino applies his historical revisionism in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as this is largely what characterises the build-up of pleasurable suspense in the film’s final act. Even the viewers who are only vaguely knowledgeable about what happened to actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her friends on that fateful night in August, 1969 on her and director Roman Polanski’s property in Cielo Drive, will be asking themselves: how is Tarantino going to spin this?

Luckily for both the audience and myself right now, Tarantino treats Sharon Tate’s storyline as an animated framing device – it’s barely even a sub-plot – and instead focuses our attention on the dwindling fortunes of Rick Dalton (Leonardo Di Caprio), a TV and occasional feature film actor who is, by his own admission, already on his way to becoming a “has been”. Perhaps the only thing stopping him from sliding into total depression is the fact that his go-to stuntman, the stoic war hero Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is now also his de facto ‘gopher’, seeing to Rick’s daily affairs and keeping his morale up to manageable levels, all the while neither confirming nor denying the industry rumours that swirl around him, the most egregious of which being that he murdered his wife (Rebecca Gayheart) and “got away with it”.  

Ignoring the suggestion, made by his agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino), that he capitulates to the go-to career option for fading stars at the time and go to Rome to shoot Spaghetti Westerns, Rick takes on a role on yet another TV Western, ‘Lancer’, in which he’ll once again play the bad guy opposite James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant) and whose pilot will be helmed by Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond).

While he’s away, Cliff notices some strange goings on with youths in a nearby ranch, after giving a ride to a game and probably underaged hitch-hiker, ‘Pussycat’ (Margaret Qualley). It’s a situation that comes to an explosive head some months later. In the meantime, we are left with a deliciously rambling traipse through the highest echelons of Hollywood in that shimmering, momentous year of 1969, and Tarantino takes his sweet time to weave a layered tale of movie careers both spiralling and on the up, on-set dynamics both warm and tense, the lunatic fringe growing like toxic weeds under the Hollywood sun and the brutal violence they unleash in their wake.

Literally and deliberately crammed with so much period detail you feel as if you’re being thrown into a museum for 1969 that’s been warmed up at just the right level of humidity, the film’s languid pace is unconcerned with hitting plot-point time-stamps, instead simply allowing you to immerse yourself in Tarantino’s kaleidoscopic and yes, utterly indulgent, tribute to the film’s that shaped him. That is, until the violence really hits… but even then, it plays out largely for comic effect; a grotesque piece of slapstick that the non-squeamish are likely to lap up with perverse joy.

It is only the likes of Tarantino who get to make such original – in the not-based-on-a-comic-book sense of the word – and leisurely long feature films aimed squarely at adults out for a good time at the movies. In a climate so aggressively homogenised, where entertainment has become synonymous with bland, repetitive safety, the notorious director’s own trademark flourishes of blood and cussing actually feel like a welcome whiff of humanity – the juicy, heaving art of cinema giving us its worst, which is, of course, its best.

The verdict

hough a dizzyingly grotesque burst of violence is present and accounted for, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is mainly a gorgeously shot, deliciously unspooling love letter to Tinseltown’s classic era just as the tide is about to shift into darker, murkier waters. The work of a mature master just having a blast, its joys are numerous and infectious.