Movies

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Isn’t an Excuse for Violence. It’s About It.

Tarantino’s new movie spends every minute of its run time dissecting the relationship between bloodshed and American entertainment.

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio’s characters sit in director's chairs on set in the film.
Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Sony Pictures Entertainment

This article discusses the ending of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

As a movie that builds to the night of the Manson murders, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ends with violence, but it also begins with it. The first thing we see after the opening credits is an ad for a TV show called Bounty Law, a Western series about a mercenary killer who, given the choice to bring his targets in dead or alive, always opts for dead. (Aiming for the latter, he says, is the surest way to end up dead yourself.) In Bounty Law’s universe, the worth of a human life is not a subject for abstract philosophy; it’s a simple transaction. For $500, Jake Cahill, the show’s (presumably anti)hero, will pull the trigger and not ask any questions, except where to pick up his gold.

Jake Cahill, of course, is not real, and neither is the actor who plays him: Rick Dalton, who’s played in turn by Leonardo DiCaprio. But this being a Tarantino movie, the layers don’t end there. Rick has his own in-film substitute, a stunt man named Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt. Cliff’s job, Rick explains to a chummy on-set interviewer, is to “help carry the load,” but it’s really to be a more expendable, less valuable version of the man he’s doubling. Rick, at least by his own token, can fall off a horse with the best of them, but if he injures himself, the production has to shut down. If Cliff gets hurt, well, this is Hollywood. There are other stuntmen.

The question of who gets hurt and how is integral to all of Tarantino’s movies, and it’s an especially keen one here, with a gruesome historical bloodbath waiting in the wings. After the Bounty Law opening, the movie jumps from squared-off black and white to widescreen color, and from the 1950s to the late ’60s—six months to the day before the murders on Cielo Drive. Rick now lives in a house in the Hollywood Hills, and he’s got new neighbors, a married couple already expecting their first child: Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. They don’t know what’s coming, of course, but we do, and the movie takes almost two and a half hours to get to that point. Tarantino’s lavishly detailed re-creation of period Los Angeles, from vintage radio ads to the wrapping on a box of crackers, is an act of love, for both the city and its products—which include both the movies and Tarantino himself. But the movie’s languorous pace also feels like an attempt to stave off the inevitable, to drag out every moment before the one it can’t stop from coming. Some of Tarantino’s critics have accused him of trying to turn back the clock, but the movie’s vision of the past is tainted by the knowledge of the future, like a photo of a happy marriage long since gone sour.

The threat of violence is threaded all through Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, although it’s often so faint it’s hard to discern. Reports drift from car windows about the death toll in Vietnam, white noise that barely registers as we watch Rick’s “bitchin’ yellow Coupe de Ville” swoop through traffic. It’s on the set of the pilot Rick’s shooting for a TV Western, where the Mexican saloonkeeper begs Rick’s character not to hurt his daughter this time. It’s in a flashback to Rick’s guest spot on The Green Hornet, where a cocky Bruce Lee lectures onlookers on the difference between stunt fighting and “true combat,” where, he approvingly notes, warriors keep fighting until one of them is dead. It’s even in the movie’s most tender and elegiac scene, where Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) goes to see herself in the movie The Wrecking Crew. In the first excerpt, Tate—the real Tate, not Robbie’s—is a bespectacled klutz, tripping over Dean Martin’s luggage as he checks into a hotel. But in the second, the specs are gone, and she’s a secret agent, doing kung fu on a villainous opponent.

In Hollywood’s early decades, violence was usually bloodless and abstract. The men Jake Cahill guns down on Bounty Law merely clutch their midsections and fall to the dirt. But by 1969, when Once Upon a Time takes place, there was no point in hiding the truth. Vietnam had brought the war into American living rooms, and popular entertainment had to change—both to reflect the war and to compete with it. 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde climaxed with its heroes getting shot to death in gory, secretly thrilling detail, but even two years before that, as evidenced by an episode of The F.B.I. that Tarantino inserts just before the movie’s climax, you could show the blood spatter from a shotgun blast on network TV. (While Rick Dalton’s presence on the show is invented, the episode itself is not.)

The hippie hitchhiker (Margaret Qualley) whom Cliff picks up on her way to Spahn Ranch complains that actors are phony because they only pretend to die while real soldiers are getting killed every day. But Cliff, despite working as a stunt double, is no pretender. He’s widely rumored to have murdered his wife, although the movie never quite confirms it, and he lets drop that he once broke a policeman’s jaw in Texas. He’s also, according to one stray comment, “a goddamn war hero,” although if, as a man of his age likely would have, he saw action in World War II, we never hear anything more about it, and we can only imagine what left him with the scars on his back. Instead we see Rick acting out a parodic version of wartime valor, using a flamethrower to torch a group of Nazis. (That stunt, at least, he did himself.)

That scene deliberately calls up the ending of Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, which ends with a theater full of Nazis—including Adolf Hitler—experiencing death by flaming film stock. And it points us, though first-time viewers might not know it, in the direction of Once Upon a Time’s ending, another audacious, violent rewriting of history.

The ending of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does indeed give us what we came for, although not in the way we might have expected. The orgy of violence arrives, but Manson’s followers—Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel—are its victims and not its perpetrators. The three set out, as they did in real life, to murder the occupants of 10050 Cielo Dr., but on their way, they’re accosted by a thoroughly soused Rick Dalton, who orders the filthy hippies to get their smoking rattletrap out of his private cul-de-sac. They regroup at the bottom of the hill, which is when it dawns on them that the man in the silk robe waving a slushy pitcher of frozen Margaritas at them was Jake Cahill, and for a moment, their murderous plans are derailed by the sheer shock of running into a childhood idol. Could star power save the day?

Alas, the best RickJake can do is redirect their rage. After they’re done swapping stares, Atkins has a brain wave: What if they visited their violence on the people who taught them to be violent? After all, she reckons, “If you grew up watching TV, you grew up watching murder.” Her voice quickens as she grabs hold of the idea, like a film student who’s just hit upon a great insight, and her enthusiasm quickly takes on a hint of Grand Guignol, as she envisions castrating Jake Cahill and feeding his manhood back to him. But when they break into his house, it isn’t Rick they meet. It’s Cliff, who, just as he would on a set, steps in to do the hard work while Rick kicks back and relaxes.

The scene that follows is not quite like any in Tarantino’s filmography, not just for the intensity of its violence but for its ugliness. His movies have always taken pleasure in twisting the knife—or the straight razor, or the needle—but the brutality of Cliff’s response to the would-be killers’ invasion goes beyond mere shock. When Cliff’s dog latches onto Tex’s crotch, it’s a sick bit of slapstick, but when the dog latches onto Atkins—already shrieking after having her nose smashed by a thrown can of dog food—and drags her body away, the horror of what those teeth might be doing to her flesh is almost too much to bear. Even that pales beside the treatment reserved for Krenwinkel, whose face Cliff smashes into a variety of surfaces—a telephone receiver, a poster for one of Rick’s old movies, a fireplace mantel—until there’s nothing left but a crimson stump, then drops her lifeless body to the ground.

This is violence that’s difficult to savor. I heard the theater around me go silent and saw the woman next to me place her fingers over her mouth. Even when Rick straps on his prop flamethrower to light up Atkins, reenacting his iconic movie moment, the camera lingers on her death spasms, and later shows us what’s left of her charred, caved-in face. This isn’t the plainly aestheticized violence of, say, Kill Bill, whose “samurai blood” was specifically concocted to replicate the stylized gore of Japanese action movies and whose arterial spurts are downright painterly. It’s fast and loud and ugly—even if it’s still less extreme than what actually happened that night. To invert a maxim often used to defend Tarantino’s bloody spectacles: It’s not red; it’s blood.

And yet while we may be sick to our stomachs by the time it’s over, this gory, grueling ordeal seems to faze its survivors not at all. Cliff, still high from the LSD-laced cigarette he smoked just before the invaders arrived, cracks jokes as the ambulance takes him away, and Rick, though dazed, doesn’t seem particularly traumatized: When Sharon Tate’s voice floats through the house next door’s intercom to ask if everyone’s OK, he has the presence of mind to quip, “The fucking hippies aren’t!” One’s a violent man and the other has merely spent his life play-acting violence, but they’ve both become inured to it.

Tarantino’s past four movies have all dealt with the American past, and they’ve come to the same conclusion: This is a country steeped in bloodshed and built on resentment, and movies, notwithstanding the romantic notion of audiences bonding in the dark, have sometimes worked to sharpen the appetite for both. Even when Once Upon a Time is soaking in the period ambience, there’s a drop of poison in the water, like Rick’s penchant for casual racism or the dirt on Sharon Tate’s feet. The Cielo Drive murders aren’t the end of an era. They’re a return to form.

The Manson killers don’t just draw their inspiration from old TV shows. They get it from Cliff, whose visit to Spahn Ranch ends with him repeatedly punching a cackling hippie in the face. As his target falls to the ground, spitting viscous blood in slow motion, a crowd gathers to watch. There, right at the front of it, are Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the movies draw first blood, and reality is just trying to keep up.