Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an instance of curiously muted filmmaking from Quentin Tarantino, a director widely known for his ostentatious energy. As the man himself once quipped, it’s “a Tarantino movie. You don’t go to see Metallica and ask the fuckers to turn the music down.” In Once Upon a Time…, Tarantino has turned himself down. For most of it. And for most of it, that’s a good thing.
His last two films, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, displayed a real sense of versatility in direction on Tarantino’s part as well as a disinclination to ignore his instincts when those instincts were inappropriate. You may not ask Metallica to turn the music down but you might if they’re playing acoustic John Denver covers. That distinctive Tarantino voice has been a burden to the films of his that didn’t need them.
Once Upon a Time… is largely bereft of that voice. It is certainly the most subdued in regard to Tarantino’s distinctive dialogue that he has ever made. This is a welcome change. Those long-winded musings that once heralded Tarantino as a fresh artistic voice lost their spark a few movies back. There is an amiable laziness to Once Upon a Time… that recalls dawdling movies like Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, in which we are content to enjoy the company of the characters, and that’s it.
For most of the film, enjoying the company of the characters is all we do. Tarantino recently cited Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma as an indication of where he was coming from with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It’s an apt comparison. Nostalgia saturates the frames of both films. They are both sustained by the desire to convey a time and place rather than any genuine interest in plot. Both films work best when we let their gentle paces wash over us.
That so much of the film is a ramble sits ill at ease with the conclusion, which is decidedly otherwise. The final act is also a regression into Tarantino’s familiar inclinations. That the volume is turned back up, way back up, is not necessarily an issue. That what Tarantino does to get there and a lot of what occurs while the volume is up is haphazard ultimately smacks of lazy writing. The idea that Tarantino doesn’t second guess his own gift after so much success has become an increasingly valid concern over the past few films. His best films are episodic. Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight and now Once Upon a Time in Hollywood demonstrate that Tarantino has problems with linear narratives. It is arguably easier to produce a satisfying final act that doesn’t gel with the rest of the film when the narrative is disjointed.
It is difficult to establish how someone watching the film who doesn’t know about what happened on Cielo Drive on August the 8th, 1969 might ingest Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Any sustained tension in the film relies entirely on an awareness of the interaction between members of the Manson Family and the occupants of the Polanski Tate household that night. Once Upon a Time… may be what Tarantino himself might describe as a ‘hangout’ movie but the atmosphere of dread builds as a natural consequence of the characters that he has chosen to include, whether those characters’ actions contribute to that atmosphere or not.
Tarantino is becoming a far more interesting director than he is a writer. The Hateful Eight, for its many crippling issues, demonstrated that he has a knack for endowing a film with mood beyond the frenetic vitality that characterised his early work. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is similarly a departure from his usual wheelhouse despite superficially comparable traits. Music here is notably never used to establish a set piece, something Tarantino has always done with gusto. The songs in Once Upon a Time… flow into one another, conveying a sort of 1969 fever dream. It’s not every director that can comfortably embrace new approaches to filmmaking and Tarantino ought to be commended for it.
It might be unfair to expect Tarantino to jettison his natural creative tendencies but Once Upon a Time in Hollywood would have been a far better film had the final act displayed the same understanding of what was working about its material as everything that preceded it. The finale is not earned from a writing standpoint – Chekhov’s acid-dipped cigarette never goes off in a consequential way – and the ending sequence is more feeble than we have come to expect of the filmmaker. Success is a burden to Tarantino because we know when he’s better than what he’s throwing out.