There is no question of Quentin Tarantino’s genius. Like Spielberg, he has blended drive-in cinema, and the grand tradition of Hollywood allure into our visual worldview to great effect. “Pulp Fiction” alone is a brilliant madcap splash of color, commenting on our worship of celebrity, fame, money, and the nature of cinema itself. With its pop art glamour, its humor and its kitsch, there wasn’t anything quite like “Pulp Fiction.” Its daring puts it in the same group as “Easy Rider” and “A Clockwork Orange”. The film put the audience off balance and was a perfect example of its time.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Tarantino’s latest, is a trip of a different and bitter hue. Though ambitious, technically splendorous and semi-wistful by turns, it is sour, harsh and ultimately nihilistic.
The story puts us in the era of a Tinsel Town in the late 60s. The stars were still big along with the chrome cars like whipped cream on wheels, and film took chances.
Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a Western TV actor rapidly running out of intriguing roles. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, based on stuntman Hal Needham) is Dalton’s stunt double and errand runner. Unlike Dalton, Booth is happy, content to float through life, ogle girls and smile. Booth is known to have killed his wife, but aside from a woman on set there is little recoil.
This is odd in itself.
Dalton is in a perpetual state of vexation.
His only consolation is that he is next-door to Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).
But there is also another Hollywood helmed by a hyper hippie, Charlie (Damon Herriman) who oddly lurks about looking for movie stars.
Dalton has no tolerance for new ideas, but Booth is open-minded, especially if there are young women involved.
Margot Robbie is vivid if superficial as Tate. Her performance is memorable because she embodies such innocent glamour in tragedy. We all know of the character’s horrible fate outside of the screen.
Every character in the film is encapsulated in a bubble. Dalton is preoccupied with drinking. Booth is content, without care or worry, and Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) is egotistical.
Booth picks up Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) and drives her to Spahn Ranch. After losing favor with the Manson family by insisting to visit George Spahn (Bruce Dern), Booth realizes his tire is sabotaged. A mocking follower watches him and Booth orders him to fix the tire. In a shocking scene, Booth kicks the man’s face in. The man’s face is seen open and torn, his arms outstretched, his forehead gashed. The man is obviously depicted as Jesus. The scene is offensive. Depressingly, as I watched, the audience cheered.
The entire film, at first gradually, then in broad and rapid strokes, is set to mock the counterculture movement that is so important. Young people are either blissed out, angry or tense and fidgety. There is nothing in between.
On that fated night of August 9, 1969, Tex Watson (Austin Butler) gathers the Manson girls together. They want to kill some celebrities. Booth’s house is invaded (with Tate next door) while he is walking his pit bull and taking an LSD cigarette. What follows is grotesquely sad, cynical and numbing in impact.
Worse, like the aforementioned scene, it trivializes human life, showing young girls (who are cult victims in this film) chewed pulpy and beaten to death. Once again, several in the audience clapped and cheered.
Aside from the gore and violence there is not much here. It is neither humorous or enlightening. This is a regressive Tarantino who seems to say violence solves everything, but ultimately expresses little. The genius auteur has become mute in his meanness.
Remember “Easy Rider” and Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction”? The cinematic tide has turned and not for the better.
Write Ian at email@example.com