If you’ve seen any of Quentin Tarantino’s movies, you know he earned a reputation for depicting violence in both gratuitous and necessary ways. What do I mean by that? The violence of his movies was both integral to the characters and the plot but also, some would say, extreme, stylized, over-the-top.
I will admit that I have never been his biggest fan, although certainly I have enjoyed some of his movies. My favorite was Pulp Fiction until Inglorious Basterds came out. I hated Kill Bill Vol. 1 and didn’t even bother with Vol. 2 because I didn’t see how any amount of brilliance in the second could make up for the ridiculous trash that the first one was.
Yesterday morning something happened that doesn’t usually: my husband called me on the phone to ask me on a date. He thought Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood would be a pretty fun movie and suggested we go see it.
“I’d love to,” I said, enjoying the novelty of the formal invitation. The trailer had made the movie look like interesting Tarantino fare without giving away the whole story. What we hadn’t realized is that the original trailer we’d seen––and even the synoptic blurb for the movie––really doesn’t tell you much about the movie at all that you don’t learn in the first fifteen minutes.
This film has violence, yes, including some of the bloody and incredible violence that we have come to know Tarantino for. But in this film, he’s experimenting with a different kind: emotional violence based on the audience’s expectations, targeted at a subset of the audience that is likely above a certain age. If you don’t fall into that subset of the demographic, it’s possible you won’t have any idea what I’m talking about. It’s possible you will have seen this movie and found it to be an entertaining romp, an occasionally funny look at some marginally likable characters, a meta story about a past-his-prime actor and his equally near-washed-up stunt double played by two actors who were hot leading men in their prime but who have clearly moved on past all that now. And there’s nothing wrong with that if this is your perception of the movie; it’s a fair read.
But if you’re like my husband and me, closer to fifty than we are to forty, if you know about pop culture history and the darkest stains of humanity that were left on it, if you have a sense of what Tarantino is capable of and was very wont to do in the early days of his career, then this movie might have made you stop halfway through and think, Oh no, this is the worst date movie ever.
Spoilers follow. You have been warned.
In Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood, Leonardo DiCaprio plays an actor, Rick Dalton, whose roles have dwindled to being the “heavy,” a consistent and dependable bad guy itinerant all over the TV Guide listings whose subtextual purpose is to give new leading men a career victory over him. Brad Pitt plays his stunt double, Cliff Booth, who is also his employee and best friend, who chauffeurs him around and hangs out with him and watches his house on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills and is generally cheerful about accepting whatever dregs jobs Rick maneuvers for him. Next door to Rick live Roman Polanski and his wife, Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie and arguably the most appealing character in the film, aside from one precocious little girl who is awesome.
For about the first half of the movie, there are multiple story threads that feel somewhat random, somewhat disconnected, but Tarantino is no slouch and we can expect that all these disparate threads and sketches of Hollywood circa 1969 will come together and mean something. And then they start to, when a hippie rings the doorbell at the Polanski home, and you realize where and when and who all of this is, and if you’re up on your mid-late-20th-century American history, you make the assumption that the stranger ringing the doorbell is Charles Manson.
And that’s when the movie becomes violent. Not in a literal, Kill Bill kind of way, but in an emotional, anxiety-riddled kind of way. Suddenly you realize that this movie has a long way to go, and it was made by Quentin Tarantino, and you know what happens to Sharon Tate because you remember what happened to Sharon Tate in real life in 1969. And then every part of you silently freaks out and you say to yourself, Oh shit. Suddenly this movie has become the worst date movie ever, and you’re stuck with it.
The movie then goes on to toy with your expectations further on a number of levels.
First, when Cliff ends up at Spahn’s Movie Ranch with the group of hippies and everything in their commune is Just Not Right, but he’s a stunt double who can fight and isn’t afraid of a bunch of teenage hippie girls being all weird, he goes in to find his friend George who works there, and you expect him to head down that dark and decrepit hallway and find either a dead body or a booby trap, but instead he finds George, in exactly the state the hippies said he would be. You breathe a sigh of relief.
But that’s not the whole experience, because you know that “Charlie” isn’t there and that spectre of who he really is reinforces the trauma you know is coming. From that point in the movie on, everything is tinged with this expectation that the end of the movie is going to hurt you. And that anxiety is what I mean by Tarantino’s new violence: anticipatory emotional trauma, a trigger warning of the worst kind — that comes too late — because the rest of the movie is actually good enough that you don’t want to stop watching it. Eventually, you begin to wonder what the hell Tarantino was thinking and why on earth is he doing this? Because you know what he’s capable of, and you still haven’t forgiven him for the awfulness of Kill Bill.
But remember what I said about defying expectations? This whole movie he’s been doing that, because it hasn’t been a literally violent film. It’s been hard to watch, maybe, filled with the grotesque. Seeing DiCaprio and Pitt as kind of gross has-beens defies your expectations. The crest and plummet of the suspense in some parts defies your expectations. The non-linear storytelling defies your expectations. And finally, what happens to Sharon Tate does too.
Tarantino gives us his characteristic over-the-top blood and gore when the Manson family killers show up on Cielo Drive. The documentary style kitsch of the filmmaking at that point mimics those true-crime TV shows. You feel every dreadful thing coming. And then, it comes in a different way. A bloody and crazy and even at times funny way.
A revisionist history way that you think might have been a better ending for the real story.
And then you sit through every last second of the credits to make sure Tarantino doesn’t take it back.
You call your kids on the drive home and make sure they’re okay. You tell yourselves, Wow, that could have been really bad. You remind yourself, Wow, in real life it actually was really bad. You don’t go to sleep immediately when you get home.
I won’t say that I loved this movie, or that I even liked it as much as Inglorious Basterds, which was absolutely incredible. But it was, on balance, a good movie. One worth seeing. A movie that might kick you in the chest like Bruce Le does to Cliff Booth. (Okay, that scene was really funny.)
But don’t say I didn’t warn you.