Before we delve into the machinations of Quentin Tarantino's latest film, here's a story about the most photographed barn in America.
In the heart of the town of Blacksmith exists a barn. This barn is the most photographed one in America. People from the world over come to this location to take a picture of or a picture with the barn. As people drive towards the barn, the roads are adorned with multiple hoardings pointing tourists to where the titular barn is. These hoardings and billboards all have pictures of the barn on them. By the time you reach the barn, you have been inundated with so many images of the barn that you can never objectively observe the barn with a fresh set of eyes. Once you see the barn, you can never actually see the barn.
Back in the '50s, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) was in a very famous TV show. He was the talk of Hollywood as he dispatched scoundrels every week. In 1969, however, Rick's career is precariously close to wrapping up. His show has been cancelled for a while and he has been relegated to being a villain who routinely has his ass handed to him by every actor under the sweltering LA sun. He confides his fears in his stuntman / personal assistant Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). These two men love Hollywood as much Tarantino does and hate hippies as much as the creators of South Park do.
As Rick wallows in self-pity and Cliff remains as cool as ice, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafa? Zawierucha) move in next door to Rick's Hollywood home. And with that looms the ominous threat of the Manson family. Their horrific crimes are only a few short months away.
The horrific crimes most film buffs and the general public know about is the barn. A lesser filmmaker would have adorned his/her film with all things Manson and Tate. The journey the audience would be taken on and the destination would have been the same. But Quentin Tarantino is no ordinary filmmaker, and Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood is not about the Manson family or their crimes. It is a story about two washed-up, has been, racist, sad old men and their misadventures in a world that is ready to leave them behind. This is Tarantino's Big Lebowski.
The sad old men in question are written with a genuine sense of care and with a heaping helping of dimension. Tarantino is one of the final few mainstream filmmakers who challenges his audience into empathizing with morally grey characters. His writing seems unperturbed by the politics of the day and traditional screenplay structure. Scenes go on for as long as they need to, shots linger on as long as they need to, and characters sit at a table and talk for as long as they need to simply because of the man's confidence in himself. The filmmaker and the film are never worried about losing the audience's attention. The craftsmanship on display keeps a viewer's eyes firmly glued to the screen.
The eyes stay glued to the screen also because no one does cool like Tarantino does cool. Be it royale with cheese, quoting Ezekiel 25:17, having his characters walk to Little Green Bag, giving a Nazi a little something he can't take off, shooting a slave owner through the pages of The Bible, paying homage to Bruce Lee with the yellow jumpsuit or, in this case, staging a fight scene with Bruce Lee as a part of it, no one does cool like Tarantino does cool.
But the writing and characterization can only do so much. The actors enlisted to bring these characters to life need to be firing on all cylinders, too. And Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and the extensive cast of characters around them are firing on all cylinders in more ways than one. Leonardo DiCaprio's nervous stammer, petrified eyes and subdued body language make for a beautiful dichotomy with the swagger and impossible coolness of Brad Pitt. The interactions they have with each other and the world around them fills Once Upon A Time... with a vibe like no other. The world, the characters and their journeys don't move at a breakneck pace. The audience is allowed to soak in the milieu and spend time with Rick and Cliff as they would with one of their friends.
That is not to say that the journey isn't without its speed breakers. For one, as the film transitions into its climax, it includes a massive time jump / exposition dump that threatens to kibosh all the good work that came before it. And then there is the portrayal of Sharon Tate. While Tarantino handles the late actress with the respect and dignity she deserves, you wouldn't be wrong if you felt a tad short-changed with her whole character's presence in the film. While her presence subtly casts the ominous shadow of the Manson family across the length and breadth of the film, her character seems a hair out of sync with the movie around her.
Then again, these minute errors stick out like a yellow hat in a sea of red ones simply because of how impeccable everything else about the production is. The choice to use radio ads of the day to set the tone for a scene, the immense soundtrack with so many deep cuts into the pop culture of the time, the spectacular production design, the eye-catching artwork, the deliberate choice to add grain and to skip frames are all indicative of a man and a team well versed in their specific crafts.
Our very special mention has been reserved for Robert Richardson's cinematography. While we could go on about the sweeping vistas, elegantly mounted set-pieces and scenes dripping with tension for days, we would like to isolate one shot in particular to show the genius of the people behind the camera. As Rick talks to himself while looking at the mirror, the camera and the mirror are angled in such a way that Rick talks to the mirror while the mirror talks to the audience. This is what we mean when we speak about staging and framing a shot, and that is what makes cinema so beautiful as a medium.
People often ask me why I love cinema so much. My answer has always been, "In a world beset by chaos, the cinema hall is the only place that makes any semblance of sense to me." And with Quentin Tarantino, this is his gorgeously mounted, superbly shot, wonderfully scored and spectacularly acted ode to the kind of cinema he treasured when growing up. With an air of defiance, he gives his heroes the kind of end he thinks they deserve, and by proxy takes away power from the evil that befell them. He tries to shield his heroes from the chaotic real world. The little boy in me empathies with the little boy in him. We love our cinema.