Spoiler Space offers thoughts on, and a place to discuss, the plot points we can’t disclose in our official reviews. Fair warning: Major plot points for Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood are revealed below.
What if the good times never had to end? That’s the question that hangs in the air at the end of Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood, as Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) meets his next-door neighbor Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her friends for the first time. In real life, Tate, Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch), Abigail Folger (Samantha Robinson), and Voytek Frykowski (Costa Ronin) were all brutally murdered by members of the so-called “Manson Family” on the night of August 8, 1969. In Quentin Tarantino’s version of history, they all survive, knocking Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) off of his pedestal of infamy, presumably pre-empting the LaBianca murders the following evening, and reducing him and his followers to a minor historical footnote at best. It’s the final “fuck you” that the megalomaniacal Manson, who died in November 2017, deserves.
The Manson murders shocked Los Angeles and America as a whole; they were the first of two events that harshed the national mellow and are often cited as the end of “the ‘60s” as a cultural zeitgeist. It’s not clear if the second of those two events—the murder of Meredith Hunter by a member of the Hells Angels as the Rolling Stones played “Under My Thumb” at the Altamont Free Concert on December 6, 1969—happened in Tarantino’s version of history. But it is clear that, had the Manson murders been foiled like they are in the movie, the course of Hollywood history, at least, would have been changed. I joked after the press screening of the film here in Chicago that it would have been fun if Tarantino had added Animal House-style “Rick Dalton went on to star alongside Sharon Tate in Roman Polanski’s next film” freeze frames to the end credits. But really, it’s a better artistic choice for the audience to imagine those possibilities for themselves—and marinate in the sinking sadness of remembering that no, the lovely, kind, talented woman depicted in the film died a long time ago, terrified and in terrible pain.
As for how that particular American tragedy is wiped from history in Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood, it’s notable that Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) and Brandy the pit bull’s attack on Manson followers Tex Watson (Austin Butler), Katie (Madisen Beaty), and Sadie (Mikey Madison) after they change their plan and break into Rick’s house instead of Tate’s is the first “real” (i.e., not part of one of the films or TV shows within the film) act of violence in the movie. It’s savage violence, too: Being ripped apart by a dog or having your face bashed in are are two absolutely horrifying ways to die, and Tarantino films the deaths with bloody, visceral intensity. And although we the audience know what these “fucking hippies” would have done given the chance, Cliff doesn’t know that; true, he’s high on acid and acting in self-defense, but the viciousness of the thing seems a bit excessive, no? (It’s especially unsettling when you consider that Cliff’s already murdered once and gotten away with it, a tension that Tarantino just lets hang throughout the film.)
Moral complexity aside, I was cracking up throughout the cathartic anti-Manson bloodbath that marks the climax of the film. Part of that was nervous laughter, sure. But for all the scene’s barbarism, it’s also played for comedy— particularly when Rick, finally aware of the intruders in his home after one of them comes crashing through the living room window, runs to the shed and grabs his trusty 14 Fists Of McLusky flamethrower to make some screaming hippie BBQ. The visual of a cranky middle-aged man using a relic from his glory days to take down a particularly radical member of the younger generation certainly affirms my colleague A.A. Dowd’s statement that “the future is the enemy” in Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood. That being said, I read a certain level of vulnerability into the wish being tacitly expressed by the film’s ending; it’s difficult to admit that you’re getting older and it’s freaking you out, even through the vehicle of pop-pulp ultraviolence.
On a related note, I predict that Rick and Francesca (Lorenza Izzo) are going to be divorced within the year. I say this not only because your dumbass husband barely noticing that someone’s trying to murder you on your first night in a new house in a new country would drive a wedge into even the healthiest of relationships, but also because Rick leaves Francesca alone in the house after it’s all over to go have another drink with Jay, Sharon, and the gang. Cliff explicitly tells Rick to go check on his wife (and Brandy, Cliff’s best gal) as he’s being loaded into the ambulance, and Rick doesn’t listen. His reluctance to grow up is a running theme throughout Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood, and his choice to go out rather than stay home that night confirms that deep down, he never will. And maybe, in this version of events, he doesn’t have to.