If when you saw the title of this piece, you read the part in parentheses and thought you’d chance it then stop now. The risk here is not that a few of the surprises might be signposted; I am getting right into a discussion of the very end of the film.
The thing is that I can’t say what I want to say about Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood without talking about its final scenes. So if you’ve seen the film, walk with me but if not then you and I will catch up later.
I enjoyed Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, it is a good movie, but the word I would most use to describe it is interesting. That’s not a cautious way of saying it had its ups and downs, although this is probably true; it is that I genuinely found the choices Tarantino made with this film to be fascinating. It isn’t just that he totally rewrote history. He boldly did this in Inglourious Basterds so this was always somewhere I thought he might go. What interests me is how the entire film played with audience expectations and then delivered that alternative denouement.
This was always the film where Tarantino was telling a story around the real life killing of Sharon Tate. Even if you were previously unaware of the Manson Family and what they did to Tate and her house guests on the night of 8th August 1969, it is unlikely that you hadn’t caught some wind of it going into this movie. The way that the story introduces you to Tate as a character is great, if for no other reason than it makes her so much more than the high profile murder victim that she is mostly known as. The fact that Tarantino uses real film footage of the actor rather than having Margot Robbie replay the scenes from her filmography is particularly valuable in this. Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood’s greatest triumph is that it gives a life back to a woman whose years on this earth were eclipsed by the circumstances of her death. All the time you are watching this though it makes you fear what is potentially coming. The whole time we are investing in Sharon Tate, we know that by the end we might to have to watch her be brutally and fatally stabbed. This is only exacerbated by the certification title card that appears before the film rolls that, where it normally warns of ‘scenes of a sexual nature, infrequent moderate language and mild injury detail’, just states ‘extreme bloody violence’, in bold red letters next to that tell tale and rarely seen number 18. The rest of the movie isn’t actually that violent and over two hours in you know it is still coming and you suspect it will be directed at this engaging, enthusiastic, talented young woman who is carrying an unborn child almost to term. Then, of course, it isn’t.
What we get instead is a ‘what if’ scenario of what if Manson’s disciples had gone next door first and what if they’d come across a tough stunt man who once threw Bruce Lee into a car and who is on a strong acid trip and who has a dog that will chow down hard on anything he clicks at and who has a friend who is more than a brother but not as much as a wife who is out the back with a flame thrower. Rather than seeing the uncomfortable images we didn’t want to see we are watching an ultra violent, gung-ho, punch the air beat down on the psycho hippies that are getting what’s coming to them. We are meant to enjoy this and we do because it is a relief and it is played for laughs in places. But all the while we remain discomforted because we know in our heads that similar levels of violence actually happened for real to the nice people in the adjacent house. We wince at the blood and the smashed in faces and it is good that we do because violence should be shocking, even at the flicks, but this only serves to bring home how horrid it is that this actually happened to Sharon Tate and her friends and her baby. Quentin Tarantino who has long revelled in OTT screen violence (although let’s not forget his camera panned away from it in Reservoir Dogs) has finally made us appreciate how abhorrent this is in reality and he has done it without stepping away from the artifice. I thank you for this Quentin but you left me reeling a little. You were characteristically irreverent but were also being kind of responsible, you wily old trickster.
What is also notable is that before all this stuff happens, which is not the stuff that is supposed to happen, nothing happens. The majority of the film is essentially just a character study, not primarily of Robbie’s Sharon Tate but of Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio’s ageing Hollywood action men. The script is tight and entertaining but the writer director has even steered away from the showboating of his usual moments of tension and razor sharp dialogues. The portion of the film where Pitt’s Cliff Booth investigates the Manson commune is gripping and full of threat but then nothing happens here either, other than a few intriguing cameos. The dramatic little 60s Hollywood sketches that lead up to it are fun, DiCaprio is particularly good and particularly in his scenes with nine year old Julia Butters, but it is all about that ending.
Making a film that is essentially just entertainment while highlighting someone’s actual murder does not sit totally easy. Danny Boyle’s Yesterday chose to jump a similar hurdle in its closing thirty minutes. Crucially though I think Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood does right by Sharon Tate. Tarantino evidently did not consult Roman Polanski and I don’t suppose he cares too much about what he thinks after the not so subtle dig he makes about Polanski’s famous crime in this film. He did consult extensively with her sister Debra Tate though and I can see that this film could be somehow cathartic for her family.