I love Tarantino movies.
Which is why what I’m about to say is gonna hurt.
I saw Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs within about a week of each other when I was in high school, under the assurances of my actor friend that the movies were “brilliant” and “hilarious” and all the good things, and like a good friend desperate to fit in I dutifully loved these movies in all their fast-talking, self-aggrandizing, slow-mo-walking, perversity-loving and gratuitous-gore-worshiping glory.
I say that with cynicism but I really did love the movies, and for better or worse, they taught me a lot about movies, and especially about writing; I think there’s more than a little bit of a Tarantino echo in my back-and-forth often-anticipating-what-the-other-guy-is-thinking kind of dialogue. (Or maybe I’m just being kind to myself; always an option.)
Anyway, I loved Tarantino in high school but pretty much left it at that until Kill Bill came out, and while I don’t think that one (well, two) reaches the pinnacle of Pulp Fiction for sheer filmmaking swagger, it’s a heck of a good time and hey SAMURAI SWORDS EVERYWHERE and that’s kind of awesome. Not for nothing, too, it sort of establishes a trope in his movies of the “avenging angel” style of heroine, which is a nice flourish, so I went ahead and loved those too.
Then it was Inglorious Basterds and it felt like we were back to master-class form again, with the masterful opening scene and the bloody inspired performance of Christoph Waltz and the avenging angel in full fiery glory.
Some years further on, then, there was Django Unchained, and while I only saw it once (and consequently don’t remember it as well), it felt very much like a natural addition to his catalog: There’s Waltz again killing it, and oh man here comes Leonardo diCaprio killing it, to say nothing of Jamie Foxx killing it (and everybody on screen), and there’s blood and gore and uncomfortable topics right in your face and COWBOYS YEEHAW.
And it’s like, you know, this Tarantino guy, he seems to know what he’s doing.
And then we get Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. (Here is where the minor spoilers kick in, so, y’know, heads up and whatever.)
And, look, I’m as skeptical as the next guy. All kinds of things can affect your reading of a book or your viewing of a film: the particular circumstance of your life at the time of the reading, who you’re with when you see it, heck, the leftover pizza you had for dinner before you turned it on. Anything can throw the experience off, can make things strike you in a different way, if not entirely wrong.
But I don’t think that’s what happened here.
My wife and I were super bored by the movie for the entire first half. I’ve never felt bored by Tarantino before, and here, I felt bored. We’ve got Rick, the washed-up movie star, and Cliff, his stunt double, trying to figure out their way in a Hollywood that’s leaving them behind, and … well, that’s about it. Rick bumbles around and Cliff is a badass but there’s no particular sense of where they’re going, no particular sense that they’re actively adapting to this new world, just that they’re scraping by within it.
I mean, don’t get me wrong. Not every movie has to have blood and guts and a streak of searing-hot vengeance through its core to hold my interest, but over two decades, I’ve developed a series of expectations for a Tarantino movie, and it ain’t this. It was well done, mind you, and had all the clever dialogue and stuff you want from a Tarantino movie. In fact, taken out of context, each scene could probably be considered masterful, but as a whole, the first half is a snore.
And then we have the second half, which just feels like we were cruising along having a good old time (albeit a boring one) on a peaceful country highway, then suddenly detoured onto a bumpy side road leading up to a satanic church in the woods. The second half feels entirely disconnected from the first in every way except the presence of the main characters; it’s almost as if the second half of the movie is telling its own story independent from the first half.
And that’s … just … not great. As an audience member, I felt like my time had been wasted. And as somebody who thinks a lot about entertainment (specifically, about how an audience feels about their entertainment), wasting your audience’s time feels like the closest thing to an unforgivable sin.
The climax of the film is as unconnected to the rest of the film as the second half is to the first, and it’s nothing to do with either of the two protagonists’ struggles. nor does it test them in any way that challenges who they are or what the rest of the story has taught them. It’s almost as if Tarantino had almost finished the film, then remembered, “oh crap, I’m Tarantino, I’ve got to have some ultraviolence in here somewhere” and that was it.
Seriously. Brad Pitt and his trusty dog go insane on a band of would-be murderers while Leo is zoning out in his pool out back. There’s a flamethrower involved. It’s awesome. But it’s almost nothing to do with the rest of the story. I mean, in Pulp Fiction, you get Jules and Vincent shooting people up left and right, you get Bruce Willis slicing up a serial rapist, but it’s all in service to the narrative. In Kill Bill 1 (the better one), yeah, you get a twenty-minute long orgy of blood and blades as Beatrix slices her way through an entire gang of Japanese mobsters, but the whole movie has been building up to that moment. Ditto when Shoshanna locks a gaggle of Nazis in a theater to burn them alive, ditto when Django shoots up a plantation.
In Hollywood, the antagonists stumble into Leo’s home on a whim.
It’s just so slapdash and haphazard. DiCaprio is crushing his performance, but to what end? Rick doesn’t really go anywhere, emotionally. Pitt’s performance is in the same vein. He trounces Bruce Lee in a sparring match early in the film, so when he curb stomps the killers at the end, we’re just like … duh. Of course he did. Margot Robbie is here, too, and her purpose in the film is … what, exactly?
Contrast that to Pulp Fiction, where you have these two hitmen at a crossroads. They go on a routine hit and it goes sideways; a goon with a gun gets the drop on them and unloads. Shoulda killed ’em. Doesn’t. Samuel L. Jackson takes this as a sign from God and decides to reform his life. John Travolta reads absolutely nothing into it and keeps on mobstering. Later in the film, the two have diverged. Both characters come to meet with other obstacles — dangerous people at the end of their rope — and their actions earlier in the film have consequences. Jackson, with all his serene understanding that he’s on a new path, uses his calm to save not only his own life but the lives of his partner and several others in a restaurant holdup. Travolta goes on from there to get killed by a washed-up boxer because he’s still just blundering around with his guard down. There’s a setup and a payoff. And there is *nothing* like this in Hollywood.
This film is just lost as a story, and it’s frustrating, because as I said some 1200 words ago, I love Tarantino. I love his movies and his characters and the clever way he puts things together and the way little things in the plot pay off. And ALL OF THAT is missing, here.
The film is pretty, the dialogue is sharp, and the individual performances are good, bordering on great. But as a whole, the thing falls on its face like a decapitated Japanese mobster.
Final Verdict: Two out of Five butcher knives shoved into Brad Pitt’s hip.