By Charlotte Suttee
I dived into Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) without expectation (except that there would be blood), thought about plot, or even concern for runtime, as I took my seat amongst friends in the Sewanee Student Union Theater (SUT). Before I could blink twice, the credits flashed up on the screen and I left my springy SUT chair like I was getting up from one of the most satisfying meals of my life. But then a little sour aftertaste bade me to think, “Should I have liked that as much as I did?”
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a multilayer cake of flavorful genius, sure to please both history fanatics and pretentious moviegoers alike. It is not a blockbuster movie, even though the macho man Bob Seger car montages like to say so. It takes its time, slow but poignant. The tale follows fading and tantruming western TV star Rick Dalton and his charming stunt double and drinking buddy Cliff Booth in 1969 Los Angeles, with an occasional check-in on their superstar neighbor, Sharon Tate.
If that name means nothing to you, as it did for me, your palette may not be able to recognize the flavor of the plot until it’s splattered over your face by an explosive ending. The more sophisticated your knowledge of cinematic and crime history, the sweeter this story will go down the pipe. The historical setting drives many incidents of the movie, and it is also a platform for Tarintino to geek-out over his own sixties childhood of convertible cars, Playboy culture, and TV shows.
We nearly walked out of the theater without a word to each other, but then I caught the bewildered air over a group of girls. “What did I just watch?” “I literally have no idea what that plot was.” “Yeah, wtf?” The questions couldn’t snuff out many answers from me, too, as an acknowledgement of my own cluelessness trickled in. It’s a tough film to “track,” or pinpoint the major events, especially fresh out of the watch. One element was certain: darkness brews under Hollywood and hippie culture, darkness painfully pushed at bay for most of the movie, and finally erupting when you think you can take it no longer.
I caught myself feeling a little guilty as I looked left and right to everyone with a joker’s grin plastered to my face. Never has Tarintino’s violence been so tasty. Is it really okay to feel so fulfilled by blood fountains, head bashing, and fire? I was so hungry for that payoff between Cliff’s western stand-offs and rising tensions on Rick’s movie set. Is a movie any good if you don’t question it… or your own morals?
If you haven’t liked Tarantino in the past, you won’t like the full-of-itself nature of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. His ninth and possibly last feature film is fairytale kind of hallucinogenic character study that pays violent respects to 1960s Hollywood, and it will take another watch for me to fully digest its magic and mastery.