DEVIN MEENAN, Arts & Life Editor—While Quentin Tarantino claims to have one more film on the drawing board before his pre-announced early retirement, I have a hard time seeing how any hypothetical follow-up could be a better swan song for the idiosyncratic filmmaker than last year’s “Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood (OUATIH)”. Screened by the Denison Film Society this past weekend, “OUATIH” is one of Tarantino’s most atypical films, yet simultaneously one of the most revealing about the man behind the camera.
Now to be upfront, “OUATIH” isn’t my favorite Tarantino movie. That honor belongs to his earlier history-defying feature, “Inglourious Basterds.” After my first viewing of “OUATIH” I’ll admit I was even a little confounded, enjoying it on the surface but not seeing why the story needed to be told the way it was. After a second watch, the puzzle came together.
The thing that most immediately sets “OUATIH” apart from the rest of the Tarantino canon is how leisurely the pacing is. Tarantino is a filmmaker who so excels at crafting tension-filled films he might as well be the modern heir to Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Master of Suspense” appellation; his debut, “Reservoir Dogs,” and his film prior to “OUATIH,” “The Hateful Eight,” exemplify this most clearly, featuring high-strung characters trapped in a single location under great stress, set-ups akin to a firecracker waiting to be lit.
“OUATIH,” on the other hand, proceeds at a much more leisurely pace; there’s periods of great tension, certainly, particularly when Cliff (Brad Pitt) pays a visit to Spahn Ranch, unbeknownst to him the hide-out of the Manson family, but for the most part Tarantino is content to follow the characters going about their days. Yet in spite of this and the 160+ minute runtime, the film flies by; not one scene drags and you almost end up wishing there was more once the credits start rolling.
Also mostly lacking is Tarantino’s trademark violence, (until the third act, that is, but I’ll save the details so you may witness the glorious carnage unspoiled), a product of the lower-stakes story, yet through this more down-to-earth story we have perhaps Tarantino’s most human protagonist: Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). Tarantino’s (anti)-heroes are almost always revenge-seekers, and several of them, particularly The Bride (Uma Thurman) in “Kill Bill” and the titular Django (Jamie Foxx) in “Django Unchained” perform practically superhuman-level feats on their path of vengeance.
Rick, however, is merely a washed-up TV actor painfully aware his career peaked at middling and who drowns his anxieties in whiskey. Rick’s dread of uselessness brought by age recalls Jackie Brown (Pam Grier) from the eponymous film, the only other Tarantino protagonist as grounded as Rick.
While a similar sense of regret for eras long past echoes in “OUATIH” as it does in “Jackie Brown,” the former doesn’t quite reach the same level of down-to-earth as the latter As you might have heard, “OUATIH” pulls the same rewriting history card as “Inglourious Basterds,” with Rick and Cliff foiling the Manson family intruders before they can kill the inhabitants of 10050 Cielo Drive, most infamously Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).
Rick ends the story having just met Sharon and possibly being set on a brighter career path in the process,the film reminding us that, for a moment, we’ve all experienced a glimpse at a happier ending than the one history delivered, but just for a moment.
That sentiment, I think, is the key to understanding “OUATIH” and perhaps Tarantino’s career; if cinema can transport us to alternate worlds and times, why not take fullest advantage of that? Moments like the one he created are what cinema is all about.