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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: unravelling that ending


Has any movie in 2019 proved as controversial as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? True to his reputation, writer-director Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction; Django Unchained) presents a confrontational and memorable film-going experience that refuses to settle in the mind.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt are superb as struggling actor Rick Dalton and his stunt-double Cliff Booth, two men who find themselves on the wrong side of the cultural and political divide in 1969 Los Angeles.

Bathed in the amber hues of Robert Richardson's cinematography, the movie explores the struggles of the two men while interspersing their story with that of real-life actor Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).

Hovering in the background, meanwhile, is the spectre of the notorious Manson family murders, widely credited with bringing the swinging sixties to its ignominious and horrifying end.

And then of course, there's that ending, one of the most provocative and controversial in recent years. With spoilers, here's our analysis of what it all means. (If you're yet to see the movie, stop reading now and come back later on once you've watched it.)


What happens at the end of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood?

At 165 minutes in length, Tarantino's ninth feature film offers a lot of movie for your money. (Too much, some critics have argued, accusing the director of self-indulgence and lack of discipline.) However, there's no denying he still retains that ability to needle and shock an audience.

For the most part, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a deceptively good-natured and actually rather charming story of the bromance between DiCaprio and Pitt's characters.

Towards the end of the film, the insecure Dalton has finally escaped the trap of low-rent TV Westerns to make a name for himself via Spaghetti Westerns in Italy. While there, he also meets his wife, and they and Booth return to Los Angeles.

A queasy tension then builds as we approach the night of August 9th 1969 – this is when star-in-the-making Sharon Tate and several of her friends were savagely murdered at her Cielo Drive home by the followers of psychopath Charles Manson. But of course, Tarantino throws us a curveball and rewrites the events of that appalling evening.

In Tarantino's revisionist history, murderers Susan Atkins (Mikey Madison), Patricia Krenwinkle (Madisen Beaty) and Tex Watson (Austin Butler) make the mistake of attempting to kill Dalton and Booth. They reason that their minds have been corrupted by the likes of Dalton, pawns in an entertainment system that sells violence for entertainment.

Arriving at Dalton's house, both Krenwinkle and Watson are swiftly savaged and dispatched by Booth and his pitbull Brandy. The severely mauled Atkins, meanwhile, crashes through a window into the swimming pool, where she's torched to death by a surprised Dalton wielding his flamethrower from an earlier movie production.

As the injured Booth is taken to the hospital, Dalton begins a conversation with hairdresser Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) at the gates of Tate's house.

In reality, Sebring was one of those who met a horrendous fate at the hands of the three killers – in Tarantino's vision, the earlier violence now results in cathartic wish-fulfilment, as Dalton is invited into Tate's house for the first time.

What does the end of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood mean?

How one responds to Tarantino's latest movie will depend entirely on one's knowledge of the Tate murders. A viewer who assumes the movie to be a work of complete fantasy will no doubt be shocked and surprised upon discovering that the film has interwoven fact and fiction throughout.

Those who are well versed in the tragedy of August 9th 1969 will of course be onto Tarantino's game well in advance of the climactic carnage taking place.

Either way, the movie's treatment of real-life events has stirred up a veritable hornet's nest of argument and counter-argument. Is it right for Tarantino to brazenly impose his own egotistical view upon a real-life tragedy, rewriting history to suit his own vengeful whims?

Well, one thing's for sure – the move isn't surprising. Tarantino has always been more comfortable framing real-life events via the warped excesses of his B-movie knowledge, rather than soberly confronting reality head-on.

This first became apparent in Inglourious Basterds, in which a Jewish Allied hit squad succeed where history failed by giving Adolf Hitler the pitiful death he deserved.

Prurient or inspired? There are arguments for both side, but there's no denying the audacity of Tarantino's approach, and it clearly paved the way for the revisionist likes of Django Unchained (a slavery movie filtered through a Blaxploitation revenge narrative).

Similarly, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood allows Tarantino the chance to make amends and enact vengeance upon those for whom he clearly has unbridled contempt and rage. Yet although one might see the film's sole, cartoonish explosion of violence as puerile, there are more subversive things going on here.

Structurally, Tarantino's approach is more radical than it seems. By constructing his new movie as a ratio of 140 minutes of sun-kissed nostalgia to 10/15 minutes of horrible violence, one might argue that he's mirroring the real-life impact of the Manson murders.

Many of those who lived through the 1960s are tempted to nostalgically perceive it as a time of freewheeling joy and innocence, suddenly and savagely undercut by a heinous crime that instilled grace notes of cynicism and disillusionment as America approached the 1970s.

Certainly, Tarantino's vision of 1969-era Los Angeles is, for the most part, a romanticised and obviously idealised vision. By amping up the levels of gore in the final act, he's enacting celluloid retribution on those Manson followers who brought the hippy dream crashing down around its ears.

Much criticism has centred around the film's treatment of Tate herself. Robbie gets very little dialogue as the character, instead floating through the movie with (some critics allege) very little agency.

However, there's no denying that Tarantino's refusal to stage Tate's actual death for big-screen consumption – an approach that's been repeated to tawdry effect far too often – strikes a refreshing note.

Ironically, by unleashing his controversial love of screen violence on Tate's real-life murderers, Tarantino affords the late actress a measure of dignity and avoids exploitation in the process.

And there's no denying that Robbie is a vivid and bold presence as the actress, even without many lines – the scene where she sneaks into a cinema showing her film The Wrecking Crew is quite possibly the loveliest and most endearing in Tarantino's canon.

But again, while many will allege this is a superficial and pointless reduction of a crime that demands gravity, Tarantino is making the very point highlighted in the film's title.

Throughout the movie, Tarantino has unashamedly embraced a fairy tale vision of Los Angeles, one filtered through the nostalgic memories of the director's youth.

Couple this with a climactic series of events that didn't happen, and one might argue that Tarantino is offering a self-critique, commenting on how it's all-too-easy for film-makers and audiences to wallow in make-believe at the expense of cold, hard reality.

The melancholy stillness of the final shot, looking down on the driveway of the Tate house after Dalton has gone inside, quietly allows the horrific nature of real-life events to undercut the fantasy. (That is, if one knows in advance the terrible truth of what went down that night.)

But is this being too generous to a film-maker renowned for his brash and uproarious disregard for convention? The violence in the final stage of the film is hard to watch, regardless of the hideous Mansonites upon whom it's enacted. And the allegations that this is a story more interested in the Dalton/Booth bromance than the Manson murders legacy is hard to shake.

Of course, the film's depiction of violence is intentionally queasy in the director's usual mode. On the one hand, the disfiguring and mauling of these brainwashed Manson followers is perhaps inevitable given what they unleashed on Tate and her friends in real life.

On the other hand, the horror has a tendency to catch in our throats, forcing us to quest for a moral compass and decry such treatment. Certainly, the sadism doled out to Susan Atkins is especially prolonged and hideous (perhaps because Tarantino harbours latent rage over her writing the word 'pig' on the wall in Tate's blood).

In Tarantino's world, the fate of the Manson followers comes down to frontier justice – as a self-styled auteur director with a legacy of violence behind him, he's judge, jury and executioner, unleashing as horrible a fate as he seeks fit to deal out. He's essentially playing god behind the camera.

Whether we animalistically egg him on or seek for a measure of compassion is entirely subjective – Tarantino himself is not about to answer for an audience's reaction.

The film's uproarious treatment of apparently sacred cows has, of course, caused controversy elsewhere. The now-infamous Bruce Lee sequence, in which the martial arts legend (portrayed by Mike Moh) is roundly humiliated by Booth, encapsulates the tone of the film in a nutshell.

Either it's a reflection of Tarantino's childish refusal to admit reality, or a far more cunning blurring of the outrageous and the fact-based. (The fact that the scene is apparently filtered from Booth's point-of-view suggests it's a less-than-reliable account of what went down on the set of The Green Hornet.)

Whatever one's reaction, one plays into Tarantino's hands. Without prior knowledge of 1969, one can fully embrace the fairy tale implications of the title, unencumbered by anything approaching reality. On this level, the movie perhaps works as a replication of Tarantino's overall world-view, in which the only frame of reference for anything is cinematic or pop culture-related.

By contrast, one can use their prior knowledge of 1969 to actively interrogate the film's intersection point between the fictional and the actual. Those who approach the movie in this fashion will surely have a more visceral response: as one watches the film, one is also repeatedly snapped out of its spell, constantly forced to unpick the complex interaction between Tarantino's fictional creations and those who really existed.

This goes back to the interpretation of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as a Tarantino self-critique: one simultaneously experiences it as a movie on its own terms, and as a comment about the process of mass-market make-believe and the tricky nature of big screen violence. Is Tarantino being particularly self-reflexive and actively challenging his own legacy? As we approach his tenth (and possibly final) film, one might imagine so.

There's no denying that Tarantino refuses to make it easy for us. There's also no denying that few film-makers in the modern age are capable of stirring up such a wave of cross-generational conversation.

Regardless of Tarantino's treatment of that fateful night in 1969, his film goes some way towards ensuring it will never be forgotten.

Has this made you want to watch the movie again? Then click here to book your tickets for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and don't forget to tweet us your responses to the ending @Cineword.