Why ‘Once Upon a Time In Hollywood’s Shocking Ending Is The Only One That Makes Sense
The following post contains SPOILERS for the end of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as well as for the actual historical events the movie is based on.
There are some brutal murders at the end of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood — just not the ones we expect.
For over two hours, Quentin Tarantino methodically builds tension as he leads viewers toward the inevitable: The August night in 1969 when members of Charles Manson’s Family killed everyone at 10050 Cielo Drive in Los Angeles, including pregnant actress Sharon Tate. As Tate (Margot Robbie) and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s other main protagonists — actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) — cruise around Hollywood several months before that night, Tarantino keeps cutting away to hippies Dumpster diving or hitchhiking around town. Then Cliff picks up one of the Manson followers, a young woman named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), and drives her back to Spahn Movie Ranch where Manson’s followers are holed up waiting for the race war he prophesied was imminent. Cliff manages to escape Spahn Ranch unharmed ... but that night in August is still looming.
When it arrives, it is not at all what happened in real life. Manson’s acolytes never even make it to 10050 Cielo Drive. Instead, they’re diverted by a drunken Rick, who berates them in the cul-de-sac he shares with Tate for driving their noisy car outside his house in the middle of the night. Recognizing Rick as an actor from TV, Tex Watson (Austin Butler), Susan Atkins (Mikey Madison), and Patricia Krenwinkel (Madisen Beaty) decide to murder him, but when they head back up Cielo Drive on foot they instead find Cliff and his loyal pit bull.
Together, Cliff and the dog (and Rick, once Atkins stumbles outside to the pool where Rick is relaxing) kill Watson, Atkins, and Krenwinkel in extremely bloody fashion. Later, Rick recounts the incident to Tate’s friend Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) — who died in the actual incident that the film is loosely based upon. Sebring invites Rick up to the house at 10050 Cielo Drive for drinks with Sharon, who Rick then meets for the first time just as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ends.
I am not here to tell anyone how to feel about these scenes. Personally, while I never predicted Once Upon a Time in Hollywood would end the way it did, in hindsight it feels like a deliberate attempt to recontextualize the whole endeavor from a historical picture about a time and place in America into “A Quentin Tarantino Film.” That’s because basically every Tarantino movie for the last 25 years is a revenge film, and it’s only in that final act that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood sort of becomes one, too.
Most of Tarantino movies are revenge films writ large — like Kill Bill, in which Uma Thurman’s Beatrix Kiddo systematically murders every single person who killed her fiancé and unborn child on her wedding day, or Django Unchained, where Jamie Foxx’s Django not only frees his wife from slavery in 1850s Mississippi, he kills basically everyone on the plantation where she lived. There are some exceptions in Tarantino’s filmography to this rule, but even those usually include at least some act of revenge somewhere. Reservoir Dogs, for example, is a twisty heist film that ends with one of the characters taking revenge on another for an act of betrayal. Pulp Fiction is a sprawling crime saga that hinges on several acts of revenge, including one character throwing another off a balcony, possibly for the alleged transgression of giving the thrower’s wife a foot massage.
Love them or hate them, Tarantino’s movies are — sometimes in humorous ways, sometimes in grotesque ways, often humorous and grotesque ways all at once — about crime and punishment. They ask the audience to consider what is the appropriate retribution for a perceived crime — almost always by creating a scenario where the retribution is in great excess to the crime — and then inviting the viewer to wrestle with that inequity. Is revenge okay if it happens to bad people? Will we accept revenge if we like the people carrying it out because they’re charming and witty and make great conversation about French hamburgers or episodes of The FBI?
Until Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s final act, it doesn’t seem to conform to that format. Rick and Cliff have their ups and downs in show business, but they don’t seek vengeance against anyone who’s wronged them. It’s only when Manson’s followers arrive on Cielo Drive that the film transforms before our eyes — by changing history so that Tate and her friends survive and the Manson family is killed in horrifying fashion.
That notion is not that far removed from what Tarantino did in Inglourious Basterds — where the heroes (who also gleefully execute Nazis) succeed in their plan to kill Adolf Hitler with the unexpected help from another revenge-seeker, Shosanna (Melanie Laurent). However, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood goes even further in the extent of its revisionist history; Hitler still died at the end of World War II whether or not Tarantino got involved; in Hollywood he undoes Tate and company’s deaths entirely. The question then becomes why Tarantino chose to frame this particular story in this way, using real people to tell this version of these events.
Theoretically, Tarantino could have avoided a lot of controversy if he had made a movie about a fictional charismatic cult leader in late 1960s Los Angeles who sends his minions to kill a fictional actress married to a popular film director. Anyone familiar with Charles Manson and Sharon Tate would still have been able to recognize those parallels, even if the characters had been named something like Chuck Mason and Susan Thames. Tarantino deliberately kept Charles Manson and Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski and Jay Sebring and other historical figures in the movie anyway.
For me, the reasons for this choice get back to what I discussed at the end of my review of the film. I talked about it being Tarantino’s movie about the end of things, whether that’s a certain period in Hollywood history, “The ’60s” as we now understand them, the use of celluloid film as the main recording and projecting technology for movies, or even Tarantino’s own career. Rick is almost obsessively terrified that his own career is winding down, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood repeatedly contrasts off-camera Rick — a neurotic, stuttering substance abuser — with the guy he becomes when the cameras are rolling — a truly magnetic screen presence. One of the most interesting sequences in the film comes on the set of the forgotten TV series Lancer, with Rick in character as the show’s villain of the week, delivering this intense, passionate performance, at least when he’s not flubbing his lines or cursing himself out in his trailer for his repeated screwups.
As I wrote in my review, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is filled with sequences like that one that are “filled with passionate feeling about the fleeting nature of life and the magical permanence of cinema.” The movie’s ending — gruesome and cartoonish as it may be — is another nod to cinema’s magic powers. The real Sharon Tate died on Aug. 9, 1969 and her acting career largely became a footnote to her tragic demise. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino not only gives fictional Sharon Tate a happy ending, he celebrates her talents as an actress and comedian in the extremely affectionate scene where she goes to the Bruin Theatre in Westwood and watches herself in The Wrecking Crew.
Note that Tarantino didn’t recreate The Wrecking Crew with Margot Robbie. He used the real scenes from the real film, so audiences could appreciate the real Tate’s work for themselves. That’s also why he put Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood instead of a fictional stand-in. Instead of making a movie about revenge, this time Tarantino made a movie as an act of revenge.
Gallery — Every Tarantino Movie, Ranked From Worst to Best: