I spent so much of Once Upon a Time In etc etc, and there was a LOT of time in which to think this, thinking that the only reason any of us are evening seeing this movie, much less seeing it blazoned proudly across every theater in the country like a once-in-a-lifetime Event Picture, is because it involves three very famous men. Not a fundamental problem, but it’s definitely fundamental to what this is. If the director was not “Quentin Tarantino”, if the leads were not “Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt”, would this have ever been made and received like this? Does this movie exist like it does made by people of their similar talent levels but not the reputations that they carried into this? I just do not envision a world in which anyone below their existing calibre of star power would get away with two hours and forty minutes of what is undeniably indulgence, but praised for being exactly that by an audience already primed to fondness for the ones doing the indulging.
This is the portion of this review where I’m trying to take an empathetic, magnanimous outlook on something that is well-liked by a large number of people. I am trying to understand. I do get, conceptually, someone being into all the things Quentin Tarantino is into, and so finding this to be a gift. The length would even work to favor this, as it’s even more time you would get to spend in this world. I watched OUATIH on a huge screen on 70mm film, and the pure visual look of it, the colors, the depth of focus, the costumes, the set decorating—it’s all very well, very lovingly done. I don’t think the editing or writing was well done, but that’s because I was turned off by nearly everything this movie actually depicted in way of content, and so was watching it with much more critical ill will than someone caught up in a certain movie magic they were feeling.
And listen I have nothing against movie magic for movie magic’s sake, not at all, because the very literal meta element of that was easily my favorite part of this whole thing. I loved Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, and I loved her going to see her own movie. It’s funny, because the fact that this film was going to involve an “angelic presence” of murdered Hollywood star Sharon Tate was the main thing that worried me when I first started hearing about Tarantino’s latest, and then I liked that part the best. Sometimes things work out that way! Margot Robbie is sunshine in this, and her performance is so sweet and engaging. Watching her watch herself in a dark theatre, wide starry eyes at seeing herself up there, giggling in joy and surprise and pride at the audience around her appreciating her comic performance—it genuinely brought happy little tears to my eyes!
But I hated everything besides her, so now we turn to the portion where I resentfully point out everything that bothered me about this movie. I’m gonna spoil the WHOLE thing, so turn back now if either of what I just warned you about is something that you don’t want to read.
Ten Things I Want To Complain About!!
1. Why would you do the Ron Howard in Arrested Development-style zippy narrator break once, in the beginning but oddly late in the beginning, late enough that I was taken aback that this was that kind of movie, and then zero of this for what had to be an hour and a half, before suddenly the narrator reappears, talks at length, and then vanishes again for the rest of it. This was so distractingly inconsistent!
2. Emile Hirsch makes me so bummed out, because I really like him on screen, but he has a history of physically attacking women, and that’s no good at all, and now when I look at him I can’t forget that. Surely this was not intentional casting, as he’s worked with Tarantino on other projects as well, but incidentally, RATHER ODD that he’s allowed to do a perfectly likable and even cute performance of Roman Polanski**, the director who is infamously no longer allowed to enter America because he raped a 13 year old girl. There was just…a lot of dissonance here! I can see one interpretation that perhaps without his pregnant wife getting murdered, this never would have happened, but a) bullshit, you don’t get to blame your trauma for you assaulting a child, b) when Damien Lewis appears to just explain characters to us for about a minute, he alludes to Sharon’s ex waiting in the wings for Polanski to do something bad, and like, how else are we to take that?!
3. Hey so incidentally, Sharon Tate doesn’t get murdered in this! I imagine this has to be what the big spoiler kerfuffle was about at Cannes, and I cannot FATHOM why. The minute I found out that the man who made Inglourious Basterds, Mr. Revisionist History himself, was doing a movie about the Manson murders, I knew he was going to have Brad and Leo save her. Of course he was. This isn’t actually an element I disliked, but I do dislike anyone, and very much Quentin himself, pretending that wasn’t obvious from the moment this movie was announced. We all knew, come on.
4. Brad Pitt’s character murdered his wife and we’re still supposed to like him, our stunt man hero who gets to murder even more women at the end! “No it’s an indictment of masculine violence”—why. Please tell me what in this movie made you think the movie thinks this, because this movie seemed totally in love with Cliff to me. He’s always framed as a hero! He’s doing a charming Brad Pitt performance!
5. I like messy bitch Leonardo DiCaprio (Gatsby springs to mind) but wow I am taxed these days watching grown men throw tantrums. One of my scribbled notes is just “bad men behaving badly.” Honestly this applies to Rick and Cliff both.
6. I thought for sure the scene of Rick nailing a scene (god everyone just loves his idea to throw an 8-year-old girl onto the floor too, what a….great…moment) would be revealed to be a daydream fantasy a la Cliff’s fantasy of beating up a shockingly mean and racist caricature of Bruce Lee (woW), but nope, apparently part of Rick’s storyline is that we’re supposed to love watching him eventually get his ego stroked.
7. The editing was weird. So many times I kept noticing people not in the same position from cut to cut of the same scene. There are sequences that are just a meaningless series of detail shots of their props like “hey look at our good 1969 props” and I’m like “….yeah? yeah I, I see them there.” This is technical nitpicking, but the occasional clunkiness was really surprising to me for a director who is considered such a film craftsman.
8. The women’s feet. The….feet. So much, the feet.
9. Margaret Qualley in a tiny crochet top plays a character named Pussy Cat, who spends half her screen time biting her lip at Brad Pitt and the other half lying in his lap and offering him blow jobs, and it’s so great that she’s so, so, so sexualized while they make sure that we know that she’s not even 18, ooooo~
10. And then at the end, three of the Manson kids show up to murder Sharon Tate, only Rick yells at them for idling with their loud muffler so they decide to murder him instead, and that’s how Cliff, tripping on acid, brutally murders them back. The scene is so, so long. It is so, so grisly. I had my fingers jammed in my ears because listening to that woman scream for minutes on end with her face broken open was setting all my nerves on edge. A pit bull literally tears people apart muscle and bone, Brad Pitt smashes multiple women’s heads in, and Leonardo DiCaprio burns one of them up with a flame thrower. I realize the Manson kids were going to murder Sharon and as expressed I loved her, but jesus christ. That was the embodiment of gratuitous and I really hated watching it so bad!
Anyway, I’m sure a lot of people will argue that this movie “means” something, that I just didn’t “get” it. I don’t care. I did not enjoy this film.
Well all, I need to issue a CORRECTION: this past weekend on my travels, Jen pointed out that I had MIXED UP SOME MEN in this film, and it is with great relief that I can now say Emile Hirsch is *NOT* playing ~cute Roman Polanski~, something I had really hated when I thought that was happening!! No Emile Hirsch is playing an entirely different guy, and yes this is just now a new kind of bewildering, albeit WAY less upsetting than the alternative.
There was some mild critical chatter back in the summer about whether Quentin Tarantino should have been obligated to do more set-up of the real world events he’s riffing on here, for audiences who are unfamiliar with the Manson murders. I think no, he is not beholden to do that, people are perfectly allowed to make movies about history without giving people a primer up front. HOWEVER. You do have to make it clear which of two very similar-looking people is which, especially if one of them is Roman Polanski. If your introduction of two men who are described in dialogue as bearing quite a resemblance to one another is a wide angle dance scene shot from across a pool, obviously I’m not gonna have a great idea which is the ex and which is the husband. And when I’m then only ever seeing the Emile Hirsch one of them for the rest of the movie and he’s always with Sharon in the house as if he lives there, I’M GONNA ASSUME THAT’S THE POLANSKI. You gotta have some more dialogue about this or something. Like, presuming your audience is on the same page with you on historical context is fine, it’s whatever, but assuming your audience is coming in with your movie’s IMDb page committed to memory, that is presumptive filmmaking!
Anyway on that note I just looked up Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’s IMDb page and discovered that Damien Lewis was supposed to be Steve McQueen in that scene where he described Sharon and her men, and just. God.