*Warning: The following article contains major spoilers
The Manson family murders account for one of the most notorious massacres in the history of the United States. Taking place at 10500 Cielo Drive in the Hollywood hills of Los Angeles, the victims were five adults and one unborn child, that of actress Sharon Tate. The notoriously grim crime scene photos speak for themselves, and the boogie man nature of a twisted mind like Charles Manson remains a haunting memory over 50 years later. It is with this chilling story that we enter the world of Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
It’s about a Hollywood we may have heard of, but that most of us — including Tarantino himself — would never have had the chance to see for ourselves. This is a place where westerns are some of television’s most popular shows, actors smoke and drink on set, and legends like Bruce Lee and Steve McQueen just pop up as if they were regular folks like you or I. It’s a fantasy land in this way, and it’s clear that this is part of the appeal for Tarantino.
With that in mind, it’s not necessarily a huge surprise that Tarantino decided to right the wrongs of a tragedy that still lingers in the memories of old Hollywood like a nasty bedtime story. The Manson murders are infamous in their carnage, and cut down in the prime of her life, actress Sharon Tate remains martyr-like in her tragic fate. Herein lies the power of film, and storytelling in general: the power to create a better world — in this case, one where Tate is allowed to live on and have a happy life as a wife and mother. When conceived this way, the title “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” takes on a different meaning; this film is very literally a fairy tale.
Portrayed by the increasingly impressive Margot Robbie, Sharon Tate appears in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as a starry-eyed optimist and maybe just a bit of a ditz, but a lovable ditz. When people look at her and talk about her at Hollywood parties, it isn’t hard to see why; she has an infectious, magical aura about her, and she seems to be possibility itself in the form of a beautiful, blonde bombshell. Take a scene where she watches the audience of a theater laugh as they enjoy her performance in the film Wrecking Crew: the joy she feels in being a fly on the wall, watching her own movie with the audience, makes her instantly relatable, and simultaneously makes us dread her eventual fate.
This is by design. Tarantino wants us to feel this encroaching sense of dread as he unfolds this tale of old Hollywood, and that’s why scenes of actors and stuntmen waxing nostalgic and hobnobbing with the stars are punctuated with chilling little snippets of the Manson family. Each scene of this kind seems to burn and broil with a pungent malice that, though palpable, never quite boils over into outright violence and bloodshed. It makes us dread the coming murders we are expecting all the more.
However, things take a sudden turn when the Manson family finds themselves accosted by one very drunk Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) as they prowl the streets of Hollywood for the Polanski/Tate residence. This chance encounter sparks a creative notion in one of the Manson members: Dalton, a star of many violent TV shows and films, ought to be their first victim. The poetry of it, they decide, will be in enacting the violence of entertainment on those who peddle it. So, their target changes from 10500 Cielo Drive to the house next door. This is where the fun comes in.
For much of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a sort of ‘Chekhov’s acid-soaked cigarette’ floats around the film. We see it time and time again, being bought, stored, and considered by Dalton’s stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). As Dalton and Booth prepare to end their partnership for good, Booth decides to smoke the acid cigarette at last and see where the night takes him. A short time later, the Mansons burst into the home and Booth, fueled by his acid cigarette, positively ruins them. There are vicious dog attacks, genital traumas, egregious face-smashings, and even a fiery finale courtesy of Rick’s flamethrower.
The violence of this sequence cannot be overstated. It’s nasty, brutal stuff. In a juxtaposition that calls to mind the historical revisionism of Inglourious Basterds — where we spend the majority of the movie thinking the assassination attempt on Hitler couldn’t possibly succeed, and when it does we are overjoyed — we actually relish the horror of the Manson family’s fate. Not because we suddenly believe that reality has changed, but because the power of film — and storytelling in general — has allowed us to live in a better world for a few moments.
This is precisely the appeal of the surprise climax of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. We’d love to live in a world where a charismatic psychopath who carved a swastika into his forehead is allowed to dwindle away forgotten, and a rising star is allowed to continue her ascension unhampered. We love seeing the Manson family dispatched with such terrifying ease by the charming Booth and the troubled Dalton, because it’s the opposite of the unseemly fate we had been dreading over the films near three-hour runtime.
Tarantino, of course, expects us to feel this way, which is why he indulges us in the scene for so long. If Booth had just quickly taken out the Mansons with a few swift moves, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy their punishment. If there’s even a shred of doubt of QT’s intent, the appearance of the flamethrower (conveniently stored in Rick’s shed) puts all of that to rest in a fiery finale that’s too funny to be properly grim.
In the end, this is the secret power of storytelling, and it’s one that is rarely used — the power to right the wrongs of history, to indulge the audience in their fantasy of a better reality, and to allow us the brief privilege of residing there. The final moments, as Dalton is being invited into the Tate residence, is when we, the audience, must leave this reality. It’s bittersweet, as we must return to a world where Sharon and her friends were violently murdered 50 years ago, but there is still the beauty of being able to share a world where the horrors of the Manson family were halted in their tracks, before they could descend into their infamous depravity.