Spoilers ahead!

In Tarantino’s new film, ageing actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) avenge the Manson family’s murder of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) through a fictional retelling of the story.


I was dragged off to the cinema last week to see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (OUaTiH). I wasn’t too excited because I’ve never been much of a Tarantino fan: I find his plots too basic and his violence too extreme. His films usually make me feel as though I’ve stopped to enjoy someone else’s car crash or gone to the modern version of a public execution. 

I found OUaTiHa bit more sophisticated than Tarantino’s usual gore-fests: his views on murder and gender politics were original. Recently the world – myself included – has been obsessing over serial killers and famous murders (eg. Netflix and Hollywood’s new documentaries about Ted Bundy and Madeleine McCann).

The problem is that mentally ill and violent people are being made glamorous. The stories are horrible but engrossing, and many murderers such as Manson and Bundy have attracted fan clubs – people drawn in by their notoriety and by the mystery that surrounds them. 

Tarantino does not romanticise his violence in the same way. He strips it of its mystery and shows it as it is: colourful, brutal and animal – almost healthy. There is no glorification of any murderer – neither Cliff Booth nor the Manson family are shown as admirable characters. 

Both Booth and the Manson family are sinister: scenes with Booth and his monster-like dog hint at his sordid past. There’s a rumour that he murdered his wife, and it’s believable. The Manson family is brilliantly sketched – Tarantino focusses particularly on their movements, giving them the terrifying physicality of a brainwashed but sexually intriguing army.

Tarantino has never been a sensitive director, but for me, this film was about himself. The title pays homage to his love of Westerns, but also describes the film as a love letter to the industry. There was a warmth to it: this is a director who has had a long and successful career, who has worked with actors dealing with the highs and lows of fame.

The film does what La La Land didn’t: it captures humanity in Hollywood. It’s also very much about its director’s trademark violence. He plays with his audience. The film covers short periods of time with a huge attention to detail and, unusually for Tarantino, follows a linear storyline. Except for the last 10 minutes, the film contains only hints of imminent violence. 

The film almost ends without bloodshed. Knowledge of the Charles Manson story adds to the suspense: we already know where and when the violence will be. There will be no surprises, it will be a simple and satisfying climax. But when the violence arrives, announced by Rick Dalton’s TV – “Here comes the moment you’ve all been waiting for!” – Tarantino takes back control. 

Instead of being true to historical events, Tarantino twists the story so that the murderers become the murdered. Every viewer in the cinema exacts revenge on an infamous group of killers, and enjoys it. The punchy music and the gags make watching two men murder three teenagers a hugely enjoyable experience.

Criticism of the film has honed in on Tarantino’s violence against women. It’s set in 1969, and an eloquent 10 year old gives a comical rant about feminism to a hungover Rick Dalton, who looks lost. She is later thrown on the floor at his suggestion. Booth heroically rejects the advances of a teenage member of the Manson family, because she is too young. Sharon Tate is given very few lines, which has surprised many of Robbie’s fans. Later on, two female Manson family members are viciously murdered by two men.

If looked at from a certain perspective, these facts add up to an uncomfortable portrayal of women. But I don’t think this is what the film was trying to say. Robbie’s character is powerful: it represents a new generation of hollywood and the gentle thrills of burgeoning fame. The 10 year old may have been inserted as a joke, but her character helps a gloomy Rick believe in himself: her speech has an impact. Booth’s rejection of the girl who almost forces herself on him simply confirms that more men should ask how old girls are before they sleep with them.

The murder of the two women at the end of the film seems almost “an eye for an eye”: in real life, these girls stabbed an entire household to death. And Cliff Booth is no hero – Tarantino does not justify his actions, he simply shows a version of humanity that is in us all. An animal desire for violence. 



Photo by SONY Pictures Entertainment



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