This article contains major spoilers for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
For his ninth and supposedly penultimate film, Quentin Tarantino gave up violence. In a way. To a point. The ever-polarizing writer-director is famed for his stylish and shocking scenes of brutality, which he’s used for cartoonish thrills (Kill Bill’s 89-person sword fight), queasy comedy (Pulp Fiction’s accidental face-shooting), and morally weighted horror (Django Unchained’s showcase of slaveholders’ cruelty). But across most of its very charming and very languid run time, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood almost entirely forgoes gruesome outbursts in favor of chitchat, driving, and back-lot shenanigans. Two hours into the saga, some fan, sitting in some theater out there, is surely ready to accuse Tarantino of going soft this time.
Then comes the end of the movie, and the end of the movie’s relative peacefulness. Three Charles Manson followers—who, in reality, went on to kill five people, including the actress Sharon Tate—break in to the home of the washed-up actor Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio). These would-be slaughterers end up being slaughtered by Dalton and his stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who employ an attack dog, a flamethrower, and a myriad of household objects that get slammed into faces. This flip of history triggered cackles of glee in my theater. It has also inspired wide speculation about Tarantino’s intent. What is the point of this ornate, ahistorical violence?
The answer might be that Tarantino is out to absolve Hollywood, and himself, from grotesqueries, excesses, insensitivities, and lapses. The undeniable magic of the movie, but also a nagging sense of strain and misdirection throughout, comes from its telling of a seductive lie: that the boundary between what happens in fiction and nonfiction is impermeable.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s take on violence is evident not only in its splatter-caked climax but also through its few other, and milder, showdowns. Relatively early in the film, Booth gets challenged to an on-set duel by Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). By this point, viewers know a few things about Booth that make him seem dangerous: He’s a war veteran; he can leap great distances with ease; and he may have killed his wife, as revealed in a jarringly comic way moments earlier in the movie. Lee, of course, is the kung fu star who remains a legend today. When Booth laughs at Lee’s boasts about his supposedly lethal fists, Lee proposes a three-round brawl. (Lee’s family has objected to the portrayal of the star as “a mockery.”)
Tarantino’s longtime viewers might get excited at this point: Here, it would seem, comes a choreographed fistfight in the lineage of Kill Bill’s martial-arts bonanzas. What actually unfolds are two lightning rounds—Lee kicks Booth, and Booth slams Lee into a car door—that, while so quick they can barely be considered action scenes, demonstrate Tarantino’s knack for getting laughs from mayhem. But then the fight is broken up by Janet (Zoë Bell), a producer who already dislikes Booth because of the murder allegations against him. She yells about the practical implications of the macho showdown: Her TV show’s star was put in danger, and her car was damaged. This isn’t a movie, her reaction implies; it’s real life, and actions have consequences.
The second “fight scene” of the movie culminates Booth’s long and chilling visit to Spahn Ranch, the movie set where Booth once worked, which is now populated by spaced-out and suspicious women and girls. After going inside and talking with the ranch owner, who’s lost his vision and seems hazy about what’s happening on his property, Booth emerges to find that a knife has been stuck into his car’s tire. One of the only men living with the hippie women, Clem, stands nearby, proud to have done the deed.
In real history, Steve “Clem” Grogan was a Manson-family member who assisted in the murder of a Hollywood stuntman who worked at Spahn Ranch. In Tarantino’s reimagining, a stuntman gets the better of him. Booth asks Clem to change his car tire, and when Clem refuses, Booth whales on him—hard, fast, drawing blood. Most of the women of the ranch watch the beating with silent concern. One of them gets on a horse and goes to fetch Tex, the other man who lives with them, so that he’ll do something about Booth. But by the time Tex arrives on the scene, Booth is driving away. A nastier confrontation has been narrowly missed.
Most of the rest of the movie concerns itself with scenes of Hollywood professionals pondering their craft and eating at Mexican restaurants. The story, such as there is one, doesn’t involve life-and-death situations. But there is violence to be seen—in the movies-and-TV-shows-within-a-movie that Tarantino splices in. In the black-and-white serial Bounty Law, Dalton stars as a gunslinger who routinely ignores the “or alive” part of “dead or alive” on Wanted posters. One of Dalton’s breakout roles is in a Western that touts the racist catchphrase “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Another is in a World War II film—visually reminiscent of Tarantino’s own Inglourious Basterds—in which Dalton’s character takes a massive flamethrower to a room of Nazis.
So much for a simpler, more peaceful time in pop culture. The entertainments of the cinematic golden age that Once Upon a Time portrays, Tarantino seems to argue, weren’t less brutal than today’s action fare, which is often maligned as gratuitous. But the director isn’t simply making the claim that fictional beating and killing have long been in vogue. He’s giving his answer to the question of how onscreen violence relates to actual violence.
That question has long annoyed him. Here he is in 1994: “If you ask me how I feel about violence in real life, well, I have a lot of feelings about it. It’s one of the worst aspects of America. In movies, violence is cool. I like it.” Here he is again in 1994: “Real-life violence is real-life violence. Movies are movies.” And here he is during a 2013 tantrum caused by an interviewer asking a variant of the aforementioned question: “I’ve said everything I’ve had to say about it. If anyone cares what I have to say about it, they can Google me. And they can look for 20 years what I have to say about it. I haven’t changed my opinion one iota.” With his latest film, he’s stating his opinion, once again, and it’s indeed what he’s said all along—and as facile as it’s always been.
Repeatedly, Once Upon a Time seems to marvel at the disconnect between onscreen mayhem and the rather ordinary people who film it. At one point, Booth and Dalton watch an episode of the TV show F.B.I. in which Dalton’s evil character guns down a soldier. Dalton remarks that the corpse on-screen is played by a really good, decent guy. At another point in the film, we watch Dalton act in the TV Western Lancer. He’s (again) playing the villain, and during his monologue he throws a little girl down on the floor. After the director yells “Cut!” he asks whether she was okay with his improvisation. She’s fine—she’s wearing kneepads under her dress. Moreover, she tells Dalton that he just did the best acting she’s ever seen.
Within the world of the movie, characters do note just how violent Hollywood’s products are. Pussycat, a hippie hitchhiker, tells Booth that while fake people get killed on-screen, real people die in Vietnam every day. Later, as the Manson squad sets out to commit its would-be-notorious crimes, the members psych themselves up by criticizing the entertainment industry. Their own generation, Sadie Atkins (Mikey Madison) says, was introduced to murder through TV shows such as Bounty Law. Hence, it was Dalton who trained them to commit atrocities like the one they plan to commit that night. She yells, “My idea is to kill the people who taught us to kill!”
Oddly, the film could almost be read as taking Atkins’s stance. Once Upon a Time has been widely interpreted as an elegy for a beloved cinematic era that ended with the cultural shifts of the late ’60s, which were embodied by Manson’s curdled, deranged hippiedom. But it could be argued—and, indeed, is argued by Atkins in the film—that the film industry’s bloodthirstiness corrupted a generation that then murdered its idols. Old Hollywood, in Atkins’s reading, created the Mansons, seeding its own destruction.
Except … Tarantino makes Atkins and the other Mansons out to be buffoons. Atkins’s spiel about killing “the people who taught us to kill” is incoherent and plays as an attempt to justify the unjustifiable. Her squad’s approach up Cielo Drive can be described only as “bumbling.” When their bloody downfall arrives, it feels righteous and deserved, not to mention amusing. Why did these kids set out to do, as Tex put it, “devil shit”? The movie doesn’t venture a guess, and Tarantino doesn’t have a theory. “How [Manson] was able to get these girls and young boys to submit to him just seems unfathomable,” Tarantino said recently. “I studied a lot about it, and the more you learn about it and the more information you get, it doesn’t make it any clearer.”
So there’s no indication that Tarantino actually thinks violent movies make people violent. Rather, he seems to hold to what he said to the Orlando Sentinel in 2004: “In real life, when violence enters our world … it kind of just rears its ugly head and we are not prepared for it … It comes out of nowhere!” Once Upon a Time’s “real” calamities—the death of Booth’s wife, the conflict in Vietnam, the many horrors committed by the Manson family—lurk on the edge, undepicted and uninvestigated. Dalton and his peers live in a bubble, and their job is to create other bubbles. If those bubbles happen to include distorted reflections of the globe’s actual violence, as the uproarious end of the movie would seem to prove, that stuff can be entertaining.
By insisting that filmic violence and real violence are so separate, though, Tarantino is working from an incoherent justification of his own. The notion that movies are just movies, that what happens on-screen really only ever amounts to harmless fun, might explain his much-noted cavalier treatment of race and gender. It also would seem to contradict the director’s own ambitions. Hollywood’s products may not have killed Sharon Tate, but they surely did shape society on a level deeper than momentary amusement. After all, Tarantino’s movies often seek to do just that. Or is it wrong to look for commentary on the Civil War in Django Unchained, or on family and womanhood in Kill Bill, or on genocide in Inglourious Basterds, and so on?
The director does unambiguously reserve one special power for movie violence: to comfort in the face of true nightmares. Tarantino has said that he hesitated for years about going ahead with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, because the real-world Manson murders were too heinous to contemplate. To deal with that problem, it appears, he rewrote history as a fairy tale, just as he did with Hitler, and just as he did with slaveowners. In the movie’s final scenes, the lovably humdrum and lived-in 1969 Los Angeles of the previous two hours becomes something more surreal—call it an acid trip, a fantasy, or an action movie. With licks of flames inspiring LOLs and awe, a real horror is temporarily supplanted by a spectacle of good beating bad. Then the lights come on and the viewers have to cope, on their own, with the world they live in.