This article contains heavy spoilers.
Quentin Tarantino doesn’t tell stories the way other people tell stories. Tarantino’s flair for historical revisionism, in particular, began in earnest back in 2009, when his World War II film Inglourious Basterds flipped the script on Hitler and his Nazi forces, with Jewish soldiers coming together to wipe them off the face of the Earth. Tarantino provided a similar revisionist catharsis with Django Unchained a few years later, and he’s back this year with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a bittersweet fantasy that idealizes one of Hollywood’s most infamous real-life nightmares. In Tarantino’s 1969, Charles Manson is a footnote rather than a headline. And Sharon Tate, pregnant and full of joy, makes it out of the 1960s alive.
In his own way, you could say Tarantino is using his filmmaking currency to right historical wrongs and make the world a better place, if only inside the faux reality of a movie theater. And though the grim subject matter may suggest otherwise, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is ultimately Tarantino’s most heartfelt, upbeat and altogether hopeful film to date; Tarantino once joked that his version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame would begin with the title character having his hump removed, so it should probably come as no surprise that his “Manson Family movie” is such a one-of-a-kind affair. The film does end in an ultra-violent clash, as Tarantino’s movies always do, but here Tarantino uses that violence for a purpose.
In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the violent final act is the film’s raw, primal catharsis, a bold new take on real-life events that could only ever come from the mind of Quentin Tarantino. In Tarantino’s take on the morning of August 9, 1969, the day is saved by Hollywood star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his load-carrying stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), the two teaming up to obliterate Manson Family members Tex Watson, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel with fists, a can of dog food and even a fully operational flamethrower that Dalton had used to kill Nazis in one of his films. In an almost comically over the top sequence that sees Tarantino hitting the release valve and allowing us to revel in his bloody alternate history, Dalton and Booth (plus Booth’s dog!) lay waste to the notorious murderers, and the film ends on a heartbreakingly beautiful note: Sharon Tate, still alive, invites Rick over for drinks.
It’s one of the most bittersweet endings in cinema history: sweet because Tarantino rewrites an alternate path for Sharon Tate on the infamous morning of 8/9/69, but bitter because we of course know that nothing can change what actually happened on that night. In reality, a pregnant Sharon Tate was brutally slain by the Manson Family, along with Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski and Abigail Folger. The murders rocked Hollywood and America at large, shattering the innocence of a nation and forever changing both the film industry and the country as a whole. The era of the free-loving hippy was horrifically brought to an end by the Charles Manson-orchestrated murders, and Hollywood was truly never the same again.
If Once Upon a Time in Hollywood feels a bit aimless prior to the final act that will have people talking for years to come, as well as a bit disjointed from the previous two+ hours, there’s a good reason for that. Tarantino’s 9th film, more than any other movie he’s made to date, is less about telling a direct story and more about capturing, living in and, in Tarantino’s own boundary-pushing way, preserving a special moment in time. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino’s celebration of the Hollywood of the 1960s, before it was cruelly shattered by one of the most notorious madmen in American history. It’s a sentimental and mournful elegy for that time period (or at least Tarantino’s own personal fantasy version of that time period), and he beautifully preserves its innocence by preventing it from ever being taken away in the first place. We can only truly mourn that time by immersing ourselves in it first, and Tarantino takes his time making sure we’re able to do just that. It’s a hangout film at the end of the day, one rocked by shocking violence at the end of it. And isn’t that the ’60s, in a nutshell?
In some ways, Once Upon in Time in Hollywood, as the title suggests, really is the ultimate Hollywood fantasy, with Tarantino dreaming up two Hollywood talents as the saviors of an entire era in American history: a stuntman who mostly does all the heavy lifting, as stunt performers do, and a Hollywood action star who earns redemption by becoming a real-life version of the characters he was beloved for playing on screen during his “good guy” heyday. Everyone but the members of the Manson Family gets a “Hollywood ending” in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; on a larger scale, Hollywood itself gets one of its own.
For Sharon Tate, the happy ending is simply that she gets to live beyond August 9, 1969, presumably giving birth to a healthy baby and enjoying a happy life as an actress and mother. Played by Margot Robbie, Tate is presented as an angelic figure throughout Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the personification of the dreams-coming-true happiness that has long since passed fictional character Rick Dalton by. Seeing Tate in this light is both beautiful and heartbreaking; her happiness practically serves to haunt the movie, with Tate representing all that’s pure about Hollywood and the Manson Family looming in the background as the personification of all that’s dark and evil. There’s an unshakable feeling of doom that permeates even the film’s happiest moments, particularly the ones wherein Tarantino is observing Tate in the months prior to her real-life murder, but in Tarantino’s fantasy telling of the notorious events, the doom lifts, the clouds part, and the sun shines down on Hollywood.
Made with respect, love and sympathy for Sharon Tate and the appropriate disdain for Charles Manson and his “Family” – Tarantino deliberately refuses to even put any sort of spotlight on Manson himself – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is quite frankly the only movie about the events of August 9, 1969 that ever needed to be made. We all know what happened, and we all know how awful it was. Fifty years later, seeing it *not* happen on the big screen is the single most beautiful, emotional thing Tarantino has ever brought to the table.
If only the real world were as magical as the movies can be.