ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD – this flick, it’s interesting and worth diving into. But I think that’s to pick it apart as much to celebrate it. I’ve found the more I’ve sat with the movie, the more I’ve had to discuss and discover, and that’s something I’ll always appreciate from a work of art. The more hours I get to sit with something, no matter what conclusions I come to, the more I feel happy for having engaged with that work. For me: the central binary relationship is captivating, the feeling that the final sequence is not real has had me thinking deeply for a minute.
Initial thoughts are: I definitely liked the movie, there’s plenty to love, but there are slices of it that just don’t gel with my brain. It feels longer than it needs to be, extended shots of people walking, driving, existing do a lot for mood and character, but at over two and a half hours, I couldn’t help but wish some had been trimmed, and I don’t think we’d have lost much in those cuts. Does the bloat ruin the flick? No. But it makes it feel like something else. Just a thought.
The main characters are both captivating, and each gets a chance to shine. DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, an aging Western star watching the world pass him by. There’s a whole sequence of him flubbing his lines and then coming back to shine that is genuinely beautiful. Watching his panic set in the moment he screws a line is so real, and in the end he’s elated to the point of tears when some tv director tells him he loved a take, and following on that some 8 year old also tells him it’s the best acting she’s ever seen, which is a very specific thing because she’s 8, how much acting has she really seen, and even though she’s precocious, what does she really know from quality? She’s most likely just regurgitating the world around her in a firm voice, as many precocious 8yo’s do, and she seems to at the start when she talks about needing to stay in character on set, even while not filming. But it’s this low level of acceptance that gets DiCaprio’s Dalton teary-eyed. That tells you everything you need to know about the character.
Then there’s Pitt’s stuntman, who is the opposite because he doesn’t care what anyone thinks, he only wants to stay with Dalton. He just wants to keep having this one connection, whereas Dalton wants to connect with the whole damn world, though you have to wonder if that’s true. It could just be Dalton wants to be “accepted.” It’s not art he’s seeking, it’s fame. Pitt’s central sequence might be his walk through the ranch where the Manson Family lives, and his determination to check that everything is alright. You have to wonder about his motives here. Does he really give a shit? Or is he genuinely worried that some old Hollywood guy is being taken advantage of? Does Pitt’s Booth worry about being taken advantage of because that’s how he felt with his wife, powerless? His wife who berated him, made him feel like less, and who it strongly seems he killed, and got away with the murder. What is Booth’s motivation except to see that people get their chance to shine. He’s not really about shining himself, he just lives with his dog, works behind the scenes for Dalton, but he wants the best for others, perhaps as he never got that for himself. Perhaps. His character arc feels a little more nebulous for me, he’s more a tool for Dalton’s arc of desperately wanting to feel accepted, to feel worthwhile through external validation. And, I guess, how hard that can be in a world, and an industry, where those external people, their metrics of success, and the whole social climate can continue to change.
As a recreation of a time period, Tarantino perfects every little moment. From the neon signs, to the dog food labels, to the ice maker, to the tape decks. He’s so steeped in nostalgia and wanting to recreate his formative years that it’s impressive, and immersive, but that’s not the story. And I think that’s where I fall over on his work sometimes. He’s so obsessed with not just “what’s cool” but what he absolutely “believes is cool” that he thinks everyone else will care. And it does work. Michael Madsen sipping a soda or milkshake or whatever it was in RESERVOIR DOGS works. The briefcase with the bright light works. The minutiae is his work. But it’s not the story. So I found myself looking past the set dressing and thinking about the two guys at the heart of this story, and I locked into the way Tarantino shows their tension and desperation on the screen, the way they clash with this world they find themselves in, and I can see how genius he is as a storyteller. He drags you into it all, and there are some truly masterful moments on the screen. But they aren’t the whole time, and perhaps that’s too much to ask.
I will say, for the final sequence, I think the story works best if you assume that whole violent nightmare is an acid-induced trip, and not real. SPOILERS: but Booth smokes an acid-dipped cigarette and comes home to trip out and feed his dog at Dalton’s house. Three of the Manson Family enter to kill whoever is in the house after Dalton screams at the group in the street because of their shitbox car. Booth goes on a one-man killing spree that’s exceptionally difficult to watch as the dog can crushes one woman’s nose, and then the dog attacks two of them viciously, while Booth grabs one by the hair and slams her head into every surface he can find.
There are a few things that lead me towards leaning on the side of this being a trip hallucination and not real:
Firstly, well, the Manson Family didn’t enter this house in real life, they went up the hill to the Polanski residence. But that’s pretty thin.
Secondly, Booth has his dog’s food in Dalton’s cabinet, and I just don’t get why he’d have it there. I’ve been told Booth housesits for Dalton, so he’s stay there, so he’d have food there, but I don’t quite know if I buy it. It feels like an inconsistency that’s large enough for me to wonder if Booth went home and then made up this violent fantasy to make himself feel better.
Thirdly, this fantasy completely fixes everything for both Booth and Dalton, very sweetly. Booth gets to use his physicality to help/save his friend, literally his job as a stunt double. Booth also no doubt sets himself up to maintain his connection with Dalton after this when the whole point of this drunken night was to say goodbye as Dalton wouldn’t be able to justify having him around anymore for money and marital constraints. Now, sure, they could have remained friends, pals, whatever, but it would have waned. With this bond, they’re forged for life as brothers of war *and* it raises Dalton’s profile, which means Booth in turn will probably get more work with him, too.
This fantasy also allows Dalton to fulfill his fantasy in that by surviving, and killing one of the family members, he’s invited up for drinks to the Polanski house. He’s finally being accepted by the new Hollywood, something he clearly desperately yearns for. So this fantasy wraps both of those character journeys up perfectly for them both.
Fourthly, why the hell would Dalton still have a working flamethrower from a movie he’d previously made? That seems like some bullshit macho made up thing a guy would want to believe, or would hope for, because it’s the most bad ass he’s ever seen his friend in the past and he wants to recreate that heroic moment because letely Dalton only seems to get roles as villains, not heroes.
Fifthly, the sequence is just so brutally violent to two women, and nowhere near as much to the man, and I can’t help but think that suits Booth’s particular flavour of masculinity as we’ve already seen that hated his wife deeply [enough to kill her with a harpoon gun?], and Kurt Russell’s wife, played by Zoe Bell, also hates him and gets him fired. He picks up the hitchhiker who’s clearly a sexual catfish there to lure him to a ranch full of women living a life of duping and manipulating men. Hell, even his best buddy is about to cut their relationship because he’s married some woman he met while filming in Italy. I think Booth isn’t a big fan of women, so him smashing some young hippie girl’s head to paste on every surface in the house check out as a fantasy he’d quite enjoy, especially deep in the acid-unlocked bowels of his brain. He even lets his buddy get into the action by torching the other woman alive in his pool.
And sixthly, this whole flick is a fairy tale, and, well, fairy tales are not true. Neither is this ending.
This is completely just a personal read, I’m not trying to state it as fact, but it was fun to analyse and dive into. If I ever rewatch this flick, it’ll be to further analyse this hypothesis from the start and see what kind of a case I could really build.
In the end, there’s plenty to dig about the flick, especially the acting, and I’m glad to have had something to really chew on for a week.
NOTE: an initial version of these thoughts appeared in my weekly newsletter – subscribe here.