I think it’s safe to say that one of the reasons I love Tarrentino movies is because he always seems to be ahead of me. Catching me off guard.

Start with Reservoir Dogs. A bunch of clearly criminal elements sitting around in a diner talking about Madonna. I did not see that coming. Then, the credits followed with a smash to a backseat full of blood. Nope. Didn’t see that coming.

Pulp Fiction kept me on my toes the whole time. Honeybunny and Pumpkin suddenly jumping up with guns in their hands, “Royale with Cheese,” and exactly how far are Marcellus Wallace’s wife and Vincent Vega going to let this sexual tension go? The non-linear storytelling forced me to think, “Okay, where are we?” The divine intervention and Jules re-thinking Ezekiel 25:17. That last moment, by the way, still gives me chills and sometimes chokes me up.

It seemed every subsequent QT film would take a left-hand turn straight out of the ballpark whenever I got settled in. I never knew when it would happen or how it would happen, but it would happen. My favorite is the stunning climax of Inglorious Basterds with two Jewish-American soldiers pumping rounds in…

… well, I really shouldn’t say anything else, should I? I don’t want to steal that moment from anyone who hasn’t seen the film.

A friend of mine once said the joy of reading a Philip K. Dick book was “that PDK moment when the protagonist becomes absolutely certain that everything around him is a lie.” I’d make the argument that the Quentin Tarrentino moment is when he hits you upside the head with something that was both inevitable and surprising (Aristotle’s key to an effective plot). If anyone can do it, it’s QT. Moreso, I don’t think anyone working in Hollywood does it as well or as consistent as Tarrentino.

Which is why this movie… well…

I’m not going to say I didn’t like it, because I did like it. I think it’s one of my favorite Tarrentino movies. On one hand, it contains everything I love about QT’s movies. Rock solid dialogue. The language of the camera. My favorite directors—like my favorite authors—have a distinct voice. When you’re watching a Tarrentino movie, you know it’s a Tarrentino movie.

But there are other things that seem distinctly different. QT’s characters are cool, sometimes to the point of caricature. They’re all consistent. Even when they are archetypal, he spends enough time so you feel you know the character, so when they make decisions, all those decisions make sense. The advantage of archetypal caricatures is you can use them to move plot forward, and Tarrentino doesn’t do that.

(Recent Marvel movies could take some lessons here.)

But in this film, he spends the entire first two acts taking a deep dive into the lives and thoughts of three characters: Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth, and Margot Robbie’s  Sharon Tate. We spend nearly two hours with these characters, following them around, watching them as a dark aura of doom creeps over their heads. We learn to love them, and that means we begin to worry about them. Of course, we know what’s going to happen to Sharon Tate, but the doom lurking over the shoulders of Booth and Dalton is just as present. And for the first two hours of the film, that doom remains, but quietly. Waiting for the right moment to strike. The moment we know cannot be avoided.

As I said, I’ve loved QT’s films because I’ve always felt he’s been ahead of me. But this time… not so much. Granted, I don’t think that was his intention with the first two acts. It’s a hang out movie. He’s not trying to keep us on our toes. He wants us to settle in, get to know these people, get to like them, maybe even fall in love with them, because in the third act, something truly awful happens.

(Although, to be fair, there is a moment at the Spahn Ranch that put me right on the edge of my seat, holding my breath. That was the first time in the movie that I felt I was watching a QT movie. I had no idea what was going to happen next and I… yeah, enough about that. You’ll see it.)

So, sitting back, doing what was expected of me, the movie felt like a QT film and didn’t feel like a QT film. I like when directors stretch and try things they’ve never tried before, and that’s what the first two acts felt like to me: Tarrentino saying, “I don’t have to keep pulling rabbits out of my hat. I’m going to do this instead.”

And after getting to know these three characters well enough to care about them, QT set the third act into motion…

 

Okay. Here’s the thing. I respect stories, sometimes more than people. When I say that I won’t talk about spoilers, it isn’t so much out of respect for the storyteller (although there is respect there), it’s more out of respect for the story. And in this case, talking about the third act at all is a spoiler, so I’m not going to talk about it. However, I will talk about my reaction when the film was over.

 

When the film closed, I had mixed feelings. I loved the experience and will probably see the movie a second time. However…

Mr. Tarrentino,

I loved your movie. Sincerely loved it. I agree with you when you say this was your most personal movie. It shows. I fell in love with your characters and I remember the love I used to hold for Los Angeles when I lived there. (I’ve since gotten over it, but I encourage you to never lose it. I miss LA from time to time, the same way you miss an ex-, but then I remember how happy I am with my current love and that reminiscence fades.)

I loved your movie. But there’s this thing about magic tricks. As Penn & Teller say during their cups and balls routine: “The first rule of magic is, never do the same trick twice.”

That’s twice, sir. You don’t get a third time.

 

With admiration and respect,

JW

Unreview: Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood