If there’s one thing the films of Quentin Tarantino most certainly are not, it’s conventional. From seemingly arbitrary discussions about restaurant tipping one moment, to no-holds-barred violence the next, with Tarantino we’ve come to expect the unexpected.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood marks his return. The ninth film of his directorial career, the eagerly anticipated project — which strolls into Cineworld cinemas on 14th August — combines fact with fiction, real life characters with fictional ones, as it follows actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) who seek new opportunities in 1960s Hollywood around the time of the infamous Manson family murders.
In an example of Tarantino’s audacity, the movie brazenly interweaves Pitt and DiCaprio’s fictional characters with the real-life victims of the Mansons’ grisly spree, chiefly ill-fated actress and wife of director Roman Polanski, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).
Blending violence, homage, impressive ensembles and interweaving sub-plots is hardly a new recipe for a filmmaker like Tarantino. In fact, few directors can cook up an unorthodox batch quite like he can: a wildly distinctive audio-visual brand that almost always causes a stir.
To gear you up for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, here are five times when Quentin Tarantino well and truly ripped up to the movie rulebook.
1. A heist film without the heist – Reservoir Dogs (1992)
A heist movie without the actual heist? It would take only a director as provocative and daring as Tarantino to pull off that stunt. As feature-length debuts go, Reservoir Dogs is pretty much the perfect calling card for a filmmaker whose career has been built on the unconventional, the controversial and the divisive.
A film centred on a jewellery theft gone wrong, it is the incisive pickpocketing of our expectations that is Reservoir Dogs’ true thievery. Not a second of the heist itself is glanced upon in this playful tampering of genre formula, and instead we are left to fill in the blanks from a flurry of non-linear flashbacks, a bloody aftermath and heated discussions about Madonna songs.
2. The ear-cutting scene – Reservoir Dogs (1992)
By today’s standards of violence, the sight of an unhinged Michael Madsen casually strutting away to a toe-tapping Stealer’s Wheel track before cutting the ear from a hapless cop tied to a chair might not seem all that bad. In fact, the act itself is never seen: in a devilishly sneaky moment of self-awareness, the camera mirrors exactly what the audience does and looks away at the last minute.
But, in 1992, the second most famous ear-slicing moment in history — after a certain 19th century Dutch painter — shocked viewers to the core. It’s a scene — arguably the filmmaker’s most infamous — made all the more impactful given Reservoir Dogs’ distinctive lack of moral righteousness anywhere. With no clear hero in the picture, we are uneasily left in the company of violent robbers and psychopaths, of which Madsen’s Mr Blonde is the supreme embodiment.
3. Sublime structure-splicing – Pulp Fiction (1994)
A mere two years after Reservoir Dogs gave a flavour of Tarantino’s unique film formula, he was back to trample all over convention again with his tasty main course, Pulp Fiction.
With the sharpest of razor-sharp dialogue and a deliberate disregard for anything resembling chronology, Pulp Fiction — ironically sectioned off into chapters — cleverly intertwines the trials and tribulations of its impressive cast: Uma Thurman; Bruce Willis; Samuel L. Jackson; and John Travolta, in a role so wonderfully atypical for him at the time, it single-handedly revived his wobbling career.
He didn’t invent non-linear visual storytelling, but Tarantino’s slick, sharp stamp showcased in his sophomore feature thrust it to new levels, mashing genre and form to produce a weighty slice of raucous, unpredictable, irresistibly cool, pop-culture drenched postmodernism. Now, how do they say that in France?
4. Rewriting history – Inglourious Basterds (2009)
History gets a hefty dose of the Tarantino treatment in the gloriously off-the-wall Inglourious Basterds. The film, set during World War II and featuring another remarkable acting ensemble — spearheaded by Brad Pitt and Christoph Waltz — tells an alternate version of history wherein separate plots to assassinate prominent figures in the Third Reich unfold with increasingly outlandish results.
One such consequence is the death of its leader, Adolf Hitler. Some historians will tell you he died in a bunker at the end of the war. Others might even tell you he survived and fled with comrades to Argentina. Tarantino will tell you he was gunned down by Eli Roth in a cinema during a screening of a fictional Nazi propaganda film. It’s hardly a surprise that Inglourious Basterds isn’t exactly overflowing with streams of historical reverence or nuance, but few could have predicted an ending quite like that.
5. Revising the revisionist Western – Django Unchained (2012)
In 2012, Tarantino hit the revisionist western with both barrels. Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson, Django Unchained, which follows a former slave on his road to revenge, brings together the contentious issues of slavery and extreme violence into one controversial, explosive, sweeping 165 minute foray.
Blaxploitation or just plain exploitation, Tarantino’s take on the revisionist western was always going to be a divisive endeavour. But, while it continues to spark heated debate among audiences about the depiction of something as sensitive as slavery, like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction before it, the film also flips everything we thought we knew about movies firmly on its head.
Waltz, who won an Oscar for playing a Nazi in Inglourious Basterds, is now something of a hero; DiCaprio plays against type as a snarling baddie; and it’s a story in which the black, persecuted protagonist finds redemption in the form of bloody, trigger-happy carnage, singlehandedly rewriting the slavery narrative of 19th century America. Django Unchained is a film all about inversion – and it boasts one killer theme song.
George Nash is a writer who blogs for Cineworld as part of our news team.