The mutt steals the picture. Sure, Brad may be the coolest actor on the planet, the sense of calm, old-school cool that he just exudes in this film is just a wonder to behold, frankly, how effortless it seems to be… (and how that compares with the more introverted lead in Ad Astra) and Leo again shows how he can still surprise as he gets older… but those guys can’t stop pit bull Sayuri (who plays Brandy, Brad’s pet dog in the film) from stealing the film from them. They should have put her name above the credits, it would have been an in-joke worthy of the director.
Somehow I managed to avoid any spoilers for this film- other than knowing that it was set in Hollywood and involved the murder of actress Sharon Tate, I knew nothing. Turned out I knew less than I thought. This really wasn’t the film I’d expected it to be. Is it even a film? With all due respect to Mr Tarantino, I feel the need to describe this as more as an experience than a film. For much of its running time hardly anything, dramatically at least, seems to be happening- certainly anything like a plot or the traditional three-act structure films usually have seems to be missing. And yet I can’t say I noticed, except about just over an hour in when I glanced at the digital counter on the dash of my Blu-ray player and wondered when something was going to happen. Turned out I had to wait for another hour for that.
I’m exaggerating of course. Or am I? Not that I minded, because I found it all pretty enthralling nonetheless. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an incredibly evocative film, creating an amazingly convincing sense of time and place through a combination of superb art direction, cinematography and sound design (typically of Tarantino, it boasts a wonderful soundtrack of songs). Its so atmospheric that I can’t help but allude to Blade Runner, and how over the years part of the pleasure of watching that film was just being immersed in this incredibly convincing future world- in the case of this film, its a sense of being thrown back to 1969 and its long-lost Hollywood. I’m pretty certain that I’ll re-watch Once Upon a Time in Hollywood not for the jokes or the (sparse but powerful) action, or even the great performances, but rather just to soak it all up again, wallow in that sense of a time and place. Its an escape, just as it was when visiting the LA of 2019 envisioned by Ridley all those years ago. LA 2019, and LA 1969- the more things stay the same.
It may, of course, alienate those in the audience who prefer, say, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, the high-octane, in-your-face, twist-and-turns and shocks and surprises that his past films are so famous for. This slow, rather sad and reflective film is unmistakably Tarantino- there’s still plenty of the ornate dialogue and self-knowing humour, but it all seems balanced by some new, maturer perspective. Its more a film about movie myths, the power of them, the nostalgia of pop-culture and how fragile fame and fortune can be. The relentless march of time and change and sensing your best years are behind you.
It turns out that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a Golden Age fairy tale, leaving the real world behind as it turns towards its finale. It leaves us finally revealed to be less a film, more some strange otherworldly dream, tricking us through the power of nostalgia and what we have grown to expect from a Tarantino picture. Its quite a sleight of hand by Tarantino, and really quite magical. I was really quite enthralled by the whole thing. I’m not sure it was actually a proper film, at least in the conventional sense. More a love letter for movie lovers and fans of the old television Western era then, and none the worse for that.