The following contains spoilers for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and is intended for those who have seen the movie already. The rest is up to you.
Quentin Tarantino, as you probably already know, has made period pieces before. Well, kind of. Because when Tarantino does period pieces, they’re in his technicolor, guns-blazing alternate universe where Adolf Hitler gets knocked off at a movie premiere. However, perhaps because his alternate histories have never tackled such a specific, (horrifically) iconic incident as the murder of Sharon Tate and four of her houseguests on the night of August 8, 1969, one of the most pressing questions surrounding Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was, how will Tarantino handle one of the most infamous murders in living memory? This is, after all, not a filmmaker known for his sensitivity.
The answer, after two hours and change of getting to know and love alcoholic washed-up 1950s TV cowboy Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and especially his long-time stunt double/driver/handyman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) with interludes basking in the glow of an effervescent Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), proves to be that this is a kinder sort of Tarantino story than we’re used to—so long as you’re not a hippie (or Bruce Lee for some reason). Yeah, there’s some very crunchy head-smashing and a good bit of stabbing and a flamethrower in a key supporting role, but in the end, anyone surprised by how Once Upon a Time turns out should have paid more attention to the title: it’s a fairytale.
Because in Tarantino’s alternate history, Tex Watson (Austin Butler), Susan Atkins (Mikey Madison), Linda Kasabian (Maya Hawke) and Patricia Krenwinkel (Madisen Beaty) never quite make it to 10050 Cielo Drive. As they’re plotting from their car outside the gates on the night of August 8, they are approached by none other than Tate’s irate neighbor—a properly sloshed Rick, blender jar full of frozen margarita in hand, newly returned from Italy with several spaghetti Westerns under his belt and a new Italian wife, Francesca (Lorenza Izzo) at his side (read: sleeping off her jetlag). Don’t they know this is a private road? He just won’t have dirty hippies sitting around in his driveway, no sir.
Suffice it to say the dirty hippies are not happy and adjust their murder spree plans accordingly. But when they break into Dalton’s house—sans Linda, who decides she hasn’t the stomach for murder—the first person they meet (unfortunately for them) isn’t Dalton, out back in the pool on his favorite floatie, but Cliff, who’s just returned from walking Brandy, a very good doggo (he’s also high as a kite on an acid-dipped cigarette—this is not a detail required to understand the story, but boy is it enjoyable). Cliff, the man who kicked Bruce Lee’s ass.
There’s a big showdown. Brandy continues to be a good doggo and holds her own. Rick finishes off a wounded attacker who managed to flee to the backyard with the flamethrower he keeps in the garden shed, and even Francesca gets in a few good hits. Cliff gets stabbed, but remember, this is a fairytale, so he’s okay, and so is everybody else, in the end—except for the murderous hippies, of course, who are all very, very dead.
Next door at Sharon Tate’s house, Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) steps outside to see what all the commotion is about as an ambulance takes Cliff away to get stitched up. Rick recaps the whole crazy story. Sharon checks in via intercom, so Rick fills her in, too, and she invites him up for drinks. Everybody lives happily ever after.
If you’ve looked around the internet recently, you might have noticed that a lot of people feel a lot of ways about how the film depicts Sharon Tate. Some people love it, some people hate it. Some say her part should have been bigger or different, some say Tarantino should have just steered clear altogether. Regardless, Tarantino’s rationale for giving Tate a quiet day running errands in Los Angeles that culminates in inviting her slightly shell-shocked neighbor over for drinks, was, as he told Stephanie Zacharek in a recent interview, that he wanted to show her “driving around and doing errands […] living her life, which is what, in reality, she didn’t get a chance to do.” Because in the end Once Upon a Time… is not really about Tate or that infamous night in August of 1969, but about how fantasy interacts with reality, the ways in which the two can overlap, and its limits—real archival clips modified to rewrite history with new characters added, a true story everybody knows revamped with a happy ending. That’s the sort of thing you can do when you’re in Hollywood, in the movies—that is, literally anything.
In a sense, that’s always been Tarantino’s greatest gift. He seems to have seen practically every movie ever made and soaks everything all up and then wrings it out into his own films like a sponge, but he does it with a particular almost impish joy, not perhaps someone who likes breaking the rules so much as he likes playing around with them. He doesn’t forget that being a filmmaker with total artistic control means he’s a kid in a candy store, and he does it in a way that, when it works for you, doesn’t make you feel like the adult trying to supervise said child, but like you yourself are also that kid again, feeling that particular kind of wholehearted delight that gets harder and harder to find once you’ve grown up.
Once Upon a Time… is a fairytale of 1969, an escapist realm where Sharon Tate gets to wake up the morning of August 9 and maybe Charles Manson never has reason to become a household name. For nearly 3 hours, it’s a wonderful place to visit. And then the credits roll, and you have to return to reality.
But there’s one other great thing left about the fantasy of the movies, and that is that you can go back any time, and everything will still be there, just as you remembered it.