Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch
Director: Quentin Tarantino
As one of my way-too-early 2020 Oscar predictions, my expectations going into Once Upon a Time in Hollywood were through the rough. Well, it looks like I’m off to a good start to my predictions this year as I can easily see this movie contending in February. Tarantino films are usually some of the most well-received movies of the year and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood will almost certainly follow that path. A smart, immersive story combined with wonderful acting, stunning cinematography, and that special Tarantino flair that other films lack, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood shows us Tarantino isn’t slowing down anytime soon and has another classic on his hands.
The film follows a series of characters as they navigate their lives in Hollywood in 1969. We have Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), an actor known for starring in on Western television in the 1950s and 60s who is now struggling to keep his career going, Cliff Booth (Pitt), Rick’s stunt double and best friend, and Sharon Tate (Robbie), an up-and-coming actress and Rick’s neighbor. With a runtime of 161 minutes and three distinct characters to follow, a less talented director wouldn’t be able to balance the amount of content on display here. While the pacing through the first two acts can be slow at times, it is worth it as we get to real development of all of the main characters and figure what they need to do for the rest of the film. The main focus seems to be more on Rick and Cliff, and as a result we get to see more of DiCaprio and Pitt powering through phenomenal material and showing an array of emotions. Of the two, DiCaprio has a more complex role and we get to see why he’s been in this industry for so long as he continues to give dominating performances in every movie he’s in. Rick goes from an emotional wreck of a failing actor to dramatically explaining what he has to do to be successful in a moment’s notice and considering DiCaprio’s past, this is one of his better performances. Outside of DiCaprio, while Robbie has a smaller than anticipated role, this may be the best casting choice of 2019. Robbie looks almost identical to the real Sharon Tate and has nailed Tate’s inflection and mannerisms in a way that very actresses can ever accomplish. I don’t know if Robbie will take home the Academy Award this year, but based exclusively on her presence I’d say she absolutely has a chance. Tarantino has a gift of getting the absolute most out of his actors and while it’s most evident with his leading roles, this concept seeps far into the cast regardless of how much time they have on screen. When actors like Margaret Qualley, Julia Butters, Dakota Fanning, and Luke Perry all have minor roles in the film yet quickly establish their characters within minutes, it means your director is incredibly talented and that those working with him are probably just as talented. Outside of the acting, Tarantino once again teams up with cinematographer Robert Richardson and shows us what truly brilliant cinematography looks like. Richardson has made a career out of telling the story through the shot and helping display the emotional weight of a scene without saying a word. Whether it was through a slow tracking shot in a drive or a zoom on an emotional-distraught character, Richardson knows exactly how to show the story that Tarantino wants to tell and once again shows us why Tarentino and other successful directors routinely work with him. Finally, the third act of this movie may be the most Tarantino-esque ending that any of his movies have ever had. The first two acts are very reminiscent of Pulp Fiction where it is a slow, world-building plot that helps us understand the motives of all of the characters. The final act is more on par with his later films like Inglorious Basterds and that makes the shift that much more impactful. If this were to be Tarantino’s final movie, then this would be the perfect ending for his career and summarizes almost everything that his films are known for. While this isn’t the end for Tarantino, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood shows us that he could easily keep making films for 20 more years should he choose to.
Overall, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood really feels like if Tarantino took all the things that make his films unique and mashed it into one incredibly entertaining and well-made movie. We see many of his old colleagues working together once again and the results are apparent. The quality never dips and Tarantino knows exactly how to write a love letter to Hollywood that resonates with audiences. Looking at just the performances, there is enough talent to support Tarantino’s ambitious story and establish it as one of the best in his career.
Overall Score: 8/10