[Editor’s note: The following post contains spoilers for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”]
Quentin Tarantino’s good guys might not always win, but the filmmaker has never been interested in letting bad guys prosper. Tarantino’s particular brand of revisionist history and righteous anger has long been occupied with righting monumental wrongs, wrapped in uproarious violence that barely conceals his apparent contempt for the darker chapters of modern history.
With “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” however, finds Tarantino entering new territory. The movie combines his two modes of vengeance story — imaginative riffs on historical tragedies and personal tales of reprisal — into his most emotional movie yet.
In Tarantino’s fictional universe, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) doesn’t just live through the August 1969 murders that rocked Hollywood; she isn’t even subjected to the terror of the Manson Family breaking into her house and upending everything she loves. Instead, the “family” members go to the house next door to her infamous residence on Cielo Drive, where they face a violent end to their plan. The result staves off nearly all of the horror Charles Manson’s cult inflicted on Los Angeles during the waning days of the swinging ’60s.
It’s the same category of large-scale retconning found in “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained,” with the personal retribution of “Kill Bill,” all in one bone-breaking package. And yet that creative and emotional twist on Tate’s fate doesn’t conceal the truth, no matter how much bloody fun Tarantino pours on. It just didn’t happen that way. In the process of changing the past, Tarantino’s movie is haunted by the truth, no matter the extent of his rescue mission.
In Tarantinoland, revenge is never easy (that would take some of the shocking fun out of it, at least for the audience), but it’s always an essential step. So while it’s not surprising that he would try old tricks in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” taking his loving and complex look at Hollywood during the upheavals of the late-’60s to a predictably violent (and often amusing) explosion of brutality, the emotional impact of it is deeper than anything Tarantino has made to date. The giddy thrill of his revisionist history is complicated by the heartbreaking knowledge that none of it can change a damn thing. It’s a gut-punch that adds a new layer to Tarantino’s still-evolving narrative approach.
When the film premiered at Cannes in May, Tarantino was asked about Robbie’s perceived lack of lines, especially when compared to fellow stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. Asked at a press conference about the decision not to have Sharon speak much in the film, Tarantino replied, “I reject your hypothesis” — the apparent hypothesis being that Tarantino isn’t interested in having a woman lead this particular film, or that Sharon is somehow just a prop for the male characters in the film, or perhaps that he doesn’t respect the women who populate his films.
Before the film’s theatrical release, the filmmaker added more Sharon-centric material into the film. Regardless, the “Cannes hypothesis” doesn’t hold water. Sharon Tate is not the star of the film — the central relationship and characters arcs belong to DiCaprio and Pitt — but she is, in the simplest terms, its heart.
In early scenes, Robbie’s Tate tools around with her husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) in his zippy convertible and dances at a lively Playboy Mansion party with pals, including Michelle Phillips and Mama Cass. These snippets of her vibrant Hollywood life are designed to be surface level, benign memories selected because of how little they tell us about Sharon as a person.
Instead, all of them are filtered through the gaze of observers: the comings and goings on Cielo Drive are part of Rick and Cliff’s experience of her and Polanski. (In one great, subtle sequence, the happy couple are just alighting on their evening out while the guys next door are packing it in for the day.) Even the Playboy party is oddly punctuated by Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) narrating Sharon’s complex romantic background to a stranger.
Midway through the film, however, Sharon comes alive. Heading into West Los Angeles on an errand, Sharon picks up a hitchhiker, and the two chat away merrily before parting in a Westwood parking lot. (The scene was not in the Cannes cut.) That’s where a real spark of brilliance in the character hits: You just know Sharon is going to hug her new friend when they part. And they do.
Her Westwood wanderings eventually take her to the local Bruin theater, where she observes a poster for “The Wrecking Crew,” the final film in the Dean Martin-starring Matt Helm series. It was Tate’s next big Hollywood offering after “Valley of the Dolls” and would eventually become the last title released while the actress was still alive. In Tarantino’s world, Sharon is still starry-eyed about her role. As she gazes at the poster and then a collection of film stills tacked up outside the theater, her pleasure in seeing herself immortalized is clear.
After an amusing sequence in which Sharon must convince a bored box office clerk (Kate Berlant) that she really is the star of the movie playing right now, she slips inside the movie palace to watch herself on screen. Mostly, though, she’s enjoying watching the rest of the audience applaud her ditzy performance as Freya Carlson.
Elsewhere in the movie, Tarantino has reimagined late-’60s Hollywood in literal terms, injecting fresh shots of DiCaprio’s Rick into archival footage of classic films (at one point, he gets to play out his Steve McQueen fantasies in a revised “The Great Escape”). But the filmmaker pulls no such technological tricks with “The Wrecking Crew.” Instead, when Robbie-as-Sharon watches the film at the Bruin, she’s watching the real film, so it’s Tate we see on screen.
The effect is both moving and deeply respectful to Tate’s legacy. But the Bruin sequence also contextualizes her place in Hollywood at the time of her death, her rising star, her joyful spirit, and the sparkling personality that was part and parcel of the real Sharon’s existence. We’ve begun to know Sharon as a person.
Knowing about what happened to the actual Sharon Tate sets the final moments of “Hollywood” on edge, as four members of the Manson Family approach Cielo Drive on a hot summer night, intent on “killing pigs” and exacting horrific violence on, well, whoever. (In reality, Manson and his goons had already cased Sharon and Roman’s house, and a scene detailing just that occurs earlier in the film.)
A twist of fate — and creative license — pulls them to Rick Dalton’s house next door, where Tarantino’s revisionist history pushes them (and the world) into an entirely new direction. It’s the most low-scale of “what-ifs” Tarantino lays out in the film, and it may be the most alluring.
Aided by a generous dose of acid and a trusty pit bull, Pitt’s Cliff Booth and DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton dispatch the evildoers in all kinds of inventive and disgusting ways. It’s the most brutal sequence in a movie that has been fairly restrained until that point. (In one of the movie’s best bits, he and DP Robert Richardson frame up a scene — a memory within a flashback — that explains much of Cliff’s backstory, and while the actual event ends in violence, Tarantino only telegraphs it).
The filmmaker instead reserves his anger for Tex Watson (Austin Butler), Katie (Madisen Beaty), and Sadie (Mikey Madison), who are killed off in ways that are brutal even by Tarantino’s standards. They are flesh-tearing, bone-crunching, flamethrower-aided deaths that the filmmaker drags out until it’s almost too much to bear.. And yet, the catharsis that imbued Tarantino’s other revisionist films with some modicum of payoff is missing. What happened to Sharon and her friends was too intimate, too personal, and we’ve seen too much of “her” — both Robbie and actual Tate — in the film to forget what really went down.
Later, of course, Sharon and Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) invite a delighted Rick over to the house to chat about whatever the hell just happened at his own place and celebrate that they all lived through it. Arms open, Sharon welcomes Rick into her Cielo Drive home, still a pristine place in Tarantino’s creation, untouched by tragedy. It’s lovely and emotional, but at the same time, the fantasy stings.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is in theaters now.