Warning: This story contains MAJOR spoilers for the ending of Once Upon A Time in... Hollywood.
Quentin Tarantino has never met a revisionist ending he didn’t love. The director made waves a decade ago when he abruptly ended World War II in one blazing cinematic inferno at the end of Inglourious Basterds, and again in 2012 with his take on the blaxploitation genre, Django Unchained, which had Jamie Foxx taking down an evil slave-owner in a revenge quest. Tarantino delights in righting history’s wrongs, empowering those he believes to have been given a raw deal, usually capping it off with a grand, gory, blood-filled finale.
His latest feature, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, is no different. The film takes place mostly during February of 1969, as has-been Western star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) navigate the changing cultural landscape of Hollywood. A major TV star in the 1950s, Rick’s career has spiraled downwards, leaving him begging for guest spots as the “heavy” (read: villain) on various network shows. In between stunting for Rick, Cliff serves as his gopher: driver, handyman, life coach, drinking buddy, and friend. In his spare time, and in romantic pursuit of a mysterious hitchhiker nicknamed Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), he gets acquainted with a band of hippie misfits living out on Spahn’s Ranch, who follow a leader named “Charlie” — yes, as in Charles Manson.
Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood flits between these three narrative threads — sometimes focusing on Rick’s waning acting gigs, in sharp contrast with Sharon’s enthusiasm about her own burgeoning Hollywood status, before moving onto Cliff’s brief and dramatic encounter with Manson’s acolytes. All those disparate plots finally come together in the end, however, after the action skips ahead six months later, to August 8, 1969.
A narrator, whose voice punctuates the film with brief exposition, explains that Rick and Cliff have spent the last six months in Italy, where Rick was cast as a lead in a series of Spaghetti Westerns — a genre that Tarantino admires and has used as inspiration in many of his own films. With a new wife, Italian starlet Francesca Capucci (Lorenza Izzo), in tow, Rick reluctantly explains to Cliff that he can no longer afford to pay him for his services. But before the friends part ways, they plan on one last rager later that night.
At the same time, the famous events that would lead to the tragedy known as the Tate Murders are unfolding. Sharon, now eight months pregnant, and her friends — former fiance and celebrity hairdresser Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch), coffee heiress Abigail Folger (Samantha Robinson), and her boyfriend, Voytek Frykowski (Costa Ronin) — go to dinner at El Coyote in Los Angeles, before heading back to 10050 Cielo Drive for a night in.
Rick and Cliff also dine out, and get so drunk they have to take a cab home to Rick’s house, where Cliff’s trusty and extremely well-trained pitbull Brandy is waiting for her walk. Rick starts making frozen margaritas, while Cliff decides to finally smoke the acid-dipped cigarette he planted in the house earlier in the film (Chekhov’s cig, if you will) and take Brandy out.
As this is all happening, Family members — including Tex (Austin Butler), Sadie (Mikey Madison), and Flower Child (Maya Hawke), who had a brief run-in with Cliff at Spahn’s Ranch — drive up towards Sharon’s house, only to stop at the gate. Their loud car disturbs an outrageously drunk Rick, who storms out and gives them hell, forcing then to turn back around. Parked around the corner, one of the Manson girls suggests that instead of targeting Tate and her friends as Charlie requested, they instead turn their attention to the man whom they say taught them to kill: Rick Dalton, best known for his portrayal of Jack Cahill, TV’s most famous bounty hunter.
Of course, that’s not how history actually played out. In real life, Tate, her friends, and 18-year-old student Steven Parent, were brutally murdered by Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel on orders from Charles Manson. The next night, those same four, along with fellow Manson followers Leslie Van Houten and Steve “Clem” Grogan, would slaughter Leno and Rosemary LaBianca.
Our first indication that this movie is going to play things out differently is when Hawke’s character, claiming to have forgotten her knife in the car, drives off and leaves the other three to carry out their dirty business. The original four are down to three.
Cliff returns from his walk with Brandy only to find that the acid has finally kicked in. He feeds her — but not before licking the rat-flavored dog food, just to taste — and turns up the music, waiting for Rick to get out of the pool. Francesca, who’s sleeping in the other room, wakes up with a start, angry that her husband’s employee dares to disturb her slumber. To make matters worse, Tex and the gang choose this particular moment to burst in, surrounding Cliff and Francesca, who now appear to be in mortal danger.
As it turns out, however, Brandy isn’t just an exceptionally well-trained pup who likes to cuddle Brad Pitt. She’s a trained killer, as Tex discovers when Cliff sics her on him, as Cliff takes on the other two women. Once Brandy is done eviscerating Tex, she moves on to Sadie, ripping her arms and face to shreds and leaving her utterly hysterical. In an effort to escape, she runs out to the pool area, where Cliff is lounging with his margarita and headphones, oblivious to the raging violence around him. Startled by this screaming woman jumping into his pool, his movie instincts kick in. He runs into the tool shed, where he inexplicably keeps a flamethrower from a previous role, and literally barbecues her.
Inside, Cliff is busy bashing the last Manson girl standing’s head into every hard surface imaginable — I know she tried to kill him but this kind of violence against a woman truly is shocking, and difficult to watch — before collapsing from a knife wound in his hip. Brandy, the real hero of this story, follows a terrified Francesca into her room to stand guard. In the end, Sharon Tate, her unborn child, and her friends are spared, and Rick finally gets his wish (he’s been wanting an intro to Polanski since he moved in next door). When Jay Sebring spots him in the driveway after talking to the cops, he calls to Sharon on the intercom, who invites Rick inside to say hello. In the words of an extremely high Cliff, “And away we go!”
There are so many Inglourious Basterds easter eggs in Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood that it’s shocking I didn’t see the ending twist coming. That flamethrower, notably, makes its first appearance in a flashback to Rick’s role in the fictional action film The Fourteen Fists of McClusky, in which he plays an American spy who sets fire to a room full of Nazis from behind a curtain — an homage to the ending of Inglorious Basterds. What’s more, in the montage of films Rick shoots while in Italy, you’ll find one directed by Antonio Margheriti, the fake alias used by Eli Roth’s Bear Jew on the red carpet.
Like most of Tarantino’s work, Once Upon A Time in... Hollywood is eliciting very strong emotions on both sides of the spectrum, and it’s easy to see why: On the one hand, it’s certainly touching to imagine a world in which Sharon Tate had been able to thrive. On the other, reducing her killers to the punchline of a violent smorgasbord laced with campy humor feels somewhat reductive of a horribly vicious crime that took the lives of five real people on that night in August, nearly 50 years ago. And given how Tate is portrayed throughout the film, it’s hard not to feel as if Tarantino is positioning himself as her savior, rescuing the manic pixie dream girl of his dream from the evil clutches of fate.
Tarantino’s not the first to re-imagine Tate’s fate. Earlier this year, in fact, The Haunting of Sharon Tate did something similar — to admittedly worse effect. Still there’s something about the way it’s done in this case that doesn’t sit quite right either.
Tarantino has been facing some backlash about Tate’s character in this film. At the Cannes premiere in May, a reporter brought up the fact that Robbie had surprisingly few lines of dialogue for someone so prominently featured in the film’s plot and promotion. Tarantino responded sourly to the question, saying that he rejected her “hypothesis.”
Still, it must have struck a chord, as he later revealed that he added nearly two minutes of dialogue to the final cut. Nevertheless, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Tate’s character is framed as an elusive, almost magical unicorn of a woman: kind, blonde, beautiful, and completely inaccessible. The camera pans over her long legs — and her feet, but that’s a whole other story — and she spends most of the film undulating in dance, throwing her head back in laughter, or both. What’s more, as Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) explains in a bizarrely out of character bit of exposition earlier in the film, Sharon is the girl every man wants. Jay, her former fiance, is still in love with her, while Roman, the hottest film director in town, finally got her to settle down.
Saving her is a way for Tarantino to own a piece of her — bending her life to his will. And though it’s probably well-intentioned, it’s an uncomfortable thought to end on.