Tarantino has called this film a “love letter to Hollywood”. That’s an apt description. Specifically, it pays homage to the twilight of Hollywood’s Golden Age, right before the studios sold out to counterculture subversives who broke the Hays Code and started a willful descent into debauchery and nihilism.
This movie celebrates the Hollywood of the white-hat western, the two-fisted war epic, and the Cinderella dream of young girls from flyover country becoming Tinseltown royalty.
But is it superversive?
The standard format of these reviews is to point out that the movie in question has a message the author agrees with and calls it ‘case closed’.
But Once Upon a Time in Hollywood doesn’t really have a message–not in a political sense, anyway. It’s Tarantino’s most personal movie–his eulogy for an era that shaped him as an artist. Instead of examining this film through any ideological lens, I think it’s more fruitful to consider some of its key themes.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood doesn’t have a single plot. Instead, multiple character-driven plot threads intertwine in different times and places. In that regard, this movie resembles Tarantino’s breakout hit Pulp Fiction.
The main frame narrative concerns actor Rick Dalton and his trusty stunt double Cliff Booth.
Leonardo DiCaprio paints a compelling portrait of Dalton, a Western actor who finds himself on the skids after rashly torpedoing his hit TV series in pursuit of a movie career that never quite materialized.
Brad Pitt gives a masterfully understated performance as Cliff Booth. Cliff is reminiscent of Michael Madsen’s celebrated turn as Budd in Kill Bill: Volume 2. He’s one of the most dangerous men on Earth–a war hero capable of going toe-to-toe with Bruce Lee–who lets his inferiors use him as a punching bag due to deeply ingrained guilt over past misdeeds.
Rick and Cliff’s relationship is comically lopsided. The TV star employs his former stuntman as a de facto chauffeur, bodyguard, and handyman while also using him as an emotional handkerchief. Ever the strong silent type, Cliff bears his burdens stoically.
In a lesser director’s hands, Rick and Cliff would have been reduced to shallow caricatures: the former an effete weakling who pretends to masculinity and the latter a flawless superman patiently suffering his boss’ exploitation until someone–probably a love interest–tells him he deserves better.
For all of Tarantino’s faults, cynically holding his audience’s hands isn’t one of them. Rick’s dependence on Cliff–and the fact that they’re both aware of this dynamic–is made clear in the first five minutes. After that, they’re both allowed to stretch their archetypes and show hidden depths.
Any other director than Tarantino would have bowed to temptation and made Cliff the put-upon hero with Rick as the sleazy comedic villain. But it’s Rick who proves to have greater unexpected depth. A conversation with his film agent leads to a bout of deep insecurity that forces him to choose between sinking into mediocrity or pushing himself to escape his rut.
I won’t say if Rick succeeds. It’s really not important. What’s important is the character this adversity reveals. We see that Rick isn’t just an aging pretty boy. He’s a true craftsman whose renewed commitment to his art unearths flashes of brilliance.
It’s worth noting that Rick’s craft also involved learning how to wield a flamethrower. Just in case you forgot we’re talking about a Tarantino movie.
Actors have to learn all sorts of crazy stuff. Don’t mess with them.
That Manson Family forgot that rule. Their story intersects with Rick and Cliff’s at various points in the movie. Tarantino comes closest to outright making a statement with his depiction of Manson’s hippy cult, who stand for the subversive forces that destroyed the Old Hollywood he loved.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood celebrates such wholesome themes as the indomitable power of male friendship, the necessity of rejecting self-pity and overcoming effeminacy with virtue, and the inestimable, intrinsic value of innocence.
But is it superversive?
You’ll find no shortage of dullards who insist that Tarantino’s films are morally bankrupt because they feature violence. Then you get caved-in head takes to the effect that his movies are meaningless because they don’t have linear plots.
Unlike Eli Roth’s torture porn, Tarantino films convey meaning through their violence, horrific as it often is. If you’re still prone to clutching your pearls and insisting that violence automatically disqualifies a work on moral grounds, read the original versions of some popular fairy tales sometime.
Because as the title suggests, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a fairy tale for the modern age. And I do mean Modern. One clear and trenchant impression the film leaves on you is that the America it glamorizes is long gone. But that lost age of frayed but still widespread social cohesion has wisdom to teach us. Few Americans know their neighbors–an oversight this movie makes a point of correcting.
Near the self-declared end of his own career, Tarantino has crafted a film wherein men grow in friendship and virtue, and neighbors grow in solidarity. The stark parable of the evils wrought on the world for want of one man like Rick Dalton, warts and all, stands as a scathing rebuke of subsequent generations.
The verdict: Superversive
For more visceral action in service to virtue, read my hit mecha thriller Combat Frame XSeed.
Originally published here.