Quentin Tarantino treads treacherous waters in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by putting us right in the midst of the infamous Manson murders of 1969. In order to most clearly express my thoughts on the film, I have decided to talk about it at length, without restriction, in this spoiler-filled post.
It’s been a long time since I’ve done of one of these spoiler talks but there’s a lot of spoiler-filled material to uncover in Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and I think that in order to most clearly express my thoughts on the film, I should talk about it without restriction. If you would like to read my spoiler-free review of the film, you can do that by clicking here. However, if you’ve already seen the movie, or don’t mind spoilers, please carry on and keep reading! To repeat, there will be spoilers ahead!
— SPOILER WARNING! —
Quentin Tarantino treads treacherous waters in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by putting us right in the midst of the infamous Manson murders. However, much like with his previous films Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, Tarantino uses his film as an opportunity to rewrite history and turn it into a revenge fantasy. Rather than having a house full of innocent people being brutally murdered, Tarantino effectively turns the tables on the attackers, and savagely kills them off instead. I think it’s intended to be a viciously cathartic and comedic climax, but it didn’t sit entirely well with me. It’s horrific and, in my opinion, hard to watch.
In the scene I’m referring to, three members of the Manson Family break into actor Rick Dalton’s house with the intent to kill everyone inside. Armed with knives and a gun, they each break in through various entry points, with one of the attackers even taking Rick’s sleeping wife hostage. That’s when they come face-to-face with Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) and his guard dog Brandy, who along with help from Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), violently and relentlessly beat and bite and burn these three members of the Manson family to death. There’s a lot of bloodshed and screaming and brutal face-bashing. While it felt like everyone else around me in the theater was laughing hysterically about it, I personally felt disturbed by what I was watching. The ridiculous flamethrower finale was a clever touch, I’ll admit, and it lightened up the mood a little with its absurdity, but all in all, I was rather appalled by the sheer violence of this scene.
There’s a few different reasons why I felt this way and why I found the ending in general to be rather problematic. First of all, it’s difficult to watch such graphic violence committed against women. We literally watch Cliff repeatedly, in graphic detail, bash a woman’s face in with whatever hard objects and surfaces he can. Yes, he’s acting in self-defense, but it’s also probably the single most violent beat-down I’ve ever witnessed in a film, and the camera never even attempts to look away. This is something I had a problem with in Tarantino’s last movie, The Hateful Eight, as well. This violence against women is deeply disturbing and uncomfortable, and even more unsettling when coupled with the idea that Tarantino has developed a reputation as possibly being a misogynist. With killings like this in his films, it’s not hard to see why.
Now to be clear, I’m not attempting to defend the Manson Family in any way here, but as far as the film goes, we never actually see them do much wrong, apart from breaking into the house, albeit with deadly intentions. For those that don’t know the real story, their deaths at the hands of Cliff Booth surely must seem a tad excessive. In actuality, though, these attackers sadistically killed innocent, defenseless people by butchering them to death in the middle of the night. They stabbed their victims, including an 8 and a half month pregnant Sharon Tate, upwards of 50 times. So perhaps Tarantino is justified in taking an eye-for-an-eye approach and dishing out equally rough justice to the perpetrators. Violence begets violence, right? But even so, I still do have some conflicted feelings about his strategy.
As I mentioned in my review, I think Tarantino was right to limit the focus on the Manson Family. The more you show them and their actions and give insight into their thoughts, the more you empower them. Tarantino takes an opposite approach. In fact, the night of the murders, after going into painstaking detail setting up the events leading to the attack, Tarantino effectively dismantles and humiliates the would-be attackers in a comical encounter with a drunk and angry Rick Dalton. Then, during their break-in, he exposes them as being nothing more than a trio of crazy, mindless cowards, before disposing of them in ferocious fashion. That’s one way to make them look bad!
Although even this method comes with complications. After all, not everyone knows the story of the Manson Family, and it’s not something that’s taught in high school history classes like slavery (Django Unchained) or the Holocaust (Inglorious Basterds). In my own experience and upbringing, the Manson Family murders were always treated as some sort of unspeakable atrocity. I knew they were monstrous people that did some truly wicked things and killed a lot of people, but that was essentially the full extent of my knowledge. The way my mom would speak of the murders, in hushed tones as if even talking about it was traumatic and taboo, I honestly didn’t want to know more. In fact, that feeling remained instilled in me all the way up through adulthood.
Even when it was first announced a couple years ago that Tarantino would be making a movie about the Manson Family murders, I felt an immediate sense of dread, and even fear. Quentin Tarantino, one of my favorite filmmakers, would be devoting one of his last two films on a topic I was afraid to even read about, let alone see reenacted on the big screen. Honestly, prior to the trailer coming out, I was very much on the fence about watching it at all. But then the film’s awesome trailer helped to dispel my fears, and made it look like the Manson stuff would be minimal. Then, learning that Tarantino had changed the story and that he was including Bruce Lee in the mix got me excited over the possibility that we just might see Bruce Lee single-handedly fight off the attackers in the finale. I personally would have loved to have seen that! Although as soon as we see Cliff hold his own in combat against Bruce, I knew immediately that it would be Cliff that would save the day in the end. I would have much preferred a martial arts melee over Booth’s brutality, but maybe that’s just me.
Living in the year 2019, we are now 50 years removed from the Manson murders. Part of the problem with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood toning down the Manson story is that there’s a whole new generation of viewers who are pretty unfamiliar with this dark stain on American history. There’s a clear generational divide in effect, and I happen to fall into the younger and less-informed crowd, which undeniably altered my experience with the film. Is it the director’s fault that some of us don’t know this huge event in our history? No, not really. Yet I wish the film didn’t rely so heavily on viewers not only knowing the history behind it, but knowing it well. Like I said in my review, I decided to brace myself beforehand by bravely reading about the Tate murders. While I thought I researched that in great detail, I didn’t read much beyond that single attack, and I discovered a few days after watching the film that it was just the beginning of a very long and complex and crazy ordeal that haunted America for literally decades.
In some sense, I think my research actually added to my confusion while watching the events unfold on-screen, because even though Tarantino appears to set everything up accurately, he then chooses to abandon authenticity and retell it how he sees fit. And that’s fine, but then I wondered why he bothered including Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring and the other victims at all? Why keep showing them, only to not use them in the end? After putting some thought into it, I think I’ve come to the realization that they serve a few different purposes. Their names alone surely must automatically illicit anxiety and fearful thoughts of the Manson Family. Their inclusion also raises tension, as those who know the story inevitably know what’s coming. This also helps the movie to thwart our expectations, and then present what is meant to be a rewarding act of justice and revenge. Is it disrespectful to use them in this way, I wondered? Ultimately Tarantino gives us a glimpse of the life they should have continued to live, and in that sense, I suppose it honors them in a way. Even though they’re mainly kept in the background and given minimal dialogue, the film still manages to capture the essence of these lives that were so wrongfully and tragically lost.
So maybe my first take on Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was wrong. Or maybe I’ll double down on my issues with it after seeing it a second time. Time will tell, but I’m not in any rush to watch it again soon. I’ll openly admit that some of my issues come from my own ignorance about the Manson murders, but that was far from being my only problem with the film. Looking back, I’m reminded of my dad’s reaction to Inglorious Basterds when he first saw it in theaters. He hated it! From what I can recall, he was bothered by the way in which Tarantino rewrote history, as if it was irresponsible to refute the truth, and disrespectful to those that died. But over time, he’s come around the film and has learned to love it. Maybe with Upon a Time in Hollywood, I might too…
5 Minute Movie Guy
*** UPDATE: Well, my dad convinced me to see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood one more time before it leaves our local theaters tomorrow. I was a little reluctant, but ended up going along with it, even though I literally just wrote yesterday I was in no rush to see it again. Ha! Sure enough, it seems my reaction this time was exactly like my father’s second viewing of Inglorious Basterds that I described above. While I had issues with the film my first watch, I actually really loved it this second time. Also, the violent climax wasn’t so disturbing for me this time, and I think in retrospect my memory exaggerated how graphic it actually was. After seeing it again, I changed my review score, and also added a footnote to my review, which I’m going to paste below. I feel a little weird about so drastically changing my score, especially since I’m someone who strongly believes people should stand by their beliefs and not let others influence them towards popular opinion. However, I can say that after working everything out I genuinely came to this new assessment all on my own. So here’s my updated take on Once Upon a Time in Hollywood:
“Well, sure enough, my opinion did change. My dad convinced me to give the movie another shot before it’s pulled out of our local theater tomorrow, so we went and watched it again today (my second viewing, his third). I’m not one who often changes my opinion much after additional viewings, and I hate to sound like a push-over here, but I have to admit that this time I actually kind of loved it. It’s as if all of my own criticisms were debunked before my eyes. I knew what to expect, and I had come to terms with what the film does with its depiction of the Manson Family (which I think ultimately isn’t as baffling or tasteless as I originally thought, and in fact is probably the safest approach). Plus having a better understanding of the backstory and its context also helped me to appreciate the film more this time around.
Tarantino does indeed relish in the time period, but when you learn that the Manson murders marked the end of this beautiful era, it makes sense why he would want to savor the moment. It didn’t feel at all excessive to me this time around. Also, there really isn’t as much driving as I thought after my first viewing, and even in the longer car scenes, it serves the purpose of faithfully showcasing Los Angeles in the late ’60s and creating an authentic atmosphere. I was never bored during this second viewing, and I even developed a much greater appreciation for Rick Dalton and his character arc. I don’t think I really gave Leo quite enough credit the first time for his impressive and layered performance.
Lastly, in terms of the Bruce Lee ordeal, I’ve come to the realization that the whole scene is actually a flashback in Cliff’s mind, and therefore is likely an unreliable and biased perception. Cliff obviously didn’t get along well with him anyway, and it’s clear in the movie that Cliff discriminates against hippies and other races, which is all the more reason to believe his memory of Bruce Lee would be unfavorable. All in all, it’s crazy to me that my opinion changed so drastically during this follow-up viewing, but my main thought coming out of the theater this time was that Tarantino has truly put together a masterful piece of cinema. My previous grievances were the result of misunderstanding and false expectations. Having approached it again with a clearer perspective, I am convinced this is not only one of the best films of 2019, but also one of Tarantino’s finest.”
5 Minute Movie Guy