Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, and the way Tarantino built his ending


So a new Tarantino film (“The ninth film by Quentin Tarantino”) has smashed into theaters once again, eh? For myself and I think plenty of others, Tarantino is something of a source of nostalgia. Seeing Pulp Fiction at a young age, it was the vision-shattering film for me. Movies can sound like this? They can flow like this? In the decade-plus since learning to worship the ground on which QT tread, I’ve come to appreciate his work with a bit more of a connoisseur’s eye; I’m far from a film God, but I’ve watched a few thousand movies since my “royale with cheese” YouTube loop…

But with Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood I was struck once again by how clever and terrific a writer the man really is. Known for his star tingling violence as well as his banter, one might stumble into Hollywood expecting a bloodbath. Set amidst a fictional 1969 Los Angeles, with the very real Manson Murders of actress Sharon Tate and her friends as a looming plot point, you go in knowing there has to be some carnage. 

If it weren’t already clear, this article is all about spoiling the ending of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood! Stop reading now if you’ve not seen the movie! Isn’t that weird? A writer telling you to stop reading? But truly, ahead there be spoilers.

Still here? Well alrighty. The turn that Tarantino takes us on when the night of the murders rears its head in Hollywood‘s third act was one perhaps audiences saw coming. In a world where Tarantino killed Hitler in Inglourious Basterds and brought sweet justice to slavers at the hands of a slave in Django Unchained, revisionist history is something of the man’s calling card. So I was less shocked to see Sharon Tate survive and the Manson goons slaughtered, and more impressed with just how damn natural it all felt.

Which is a sort of an odd way to feel, when you’ve got Cliff (Brad Pitt) tripping and busting heads like it’s Mortal Kombat and Rick (Leonardo DiCaprio) torching a misguided hippie with a damn flamethrower. “Ah yes, this is the logical conclusion,” I thought to myself. Because it all makes sense.

For the previous two hours and twenty minutes, we’d been coasting along without much event. Cliff has his Texas Chain Sawesque encounter at the old movie ranch, now more of a Manson farm, but otherwise the peril has been mostly in us, the audience, knowing the sad truth of Tate’s (Margot Robbie) fate. But more to the point, this has been an awfully quiet Tarantino movie, don’t you think? Even his bombastic musical set pieces are cut short, typically blaring in via a diegetic radio and cutting out just as quickly as the editor clipped the scene. Not to mention the lack of violence. 

But the wild climax that Tarantino gives us is such a terrific culmination of his subtle (or really, unsubtle) writing in Hollywood that it’s a marvel of an ending; to make something so ridiculous perfectly logical in the context of the work is a real feat on QT’s end, and something of an ode to all of his own wild, happenstance shootouts and intersections in past films.

The scene in question. At this point, Cliff is coming into a wild high courtesy of an acid-laced cigarette while he walks Brandy, his beloved pit-bull, with Rick lounging in his pool, headphones on. The cigarette and its existence are introduced earlier in Hollywood, Cliff having stashed it at Rick’s for a future good time. Furthermore, Rick’s penchant for lounging in his pool, zoning out with his headphones has been well-established at this point; towards the film’s beginning we see him floating about, learning his lines on the eight-track recorder, headphones on. Establishing routine for his characters is key in Tarantino’s thunder crack of an ending.

With the Manson thugs (Austin Butler, Madisen Beaty, and Mikey Madison) and their loud car recently chased off by a cranky and drunk Rick Dalton, their original plan shifts gears. Dalton, at this point a faded actor known for his work a decade ago, is recalled as a childhood icon by the Manson kids, who then see a sense of twisted justice in slaying a violent pop cultural figure of their childhoods. The entire film revolves around Rick’s struggle with being a has-been, making his role as an emblem of nostalgia a no-brainer.

Only, when the Manson Family busts into Rick’s house they find not the faded western star, but a tripping Cliff and his loyal hound. High and delirious, Cliff is unfazed by the gun being pointed at him as a screaming Francesca (Lorenza Izzo), Rick’s new wife, is torn from sleep by the crazed hippies. Making his trip even stranger, Cliff begins to recognize the trio of intruders from his jaunt at the Spahn Movie Ranch where the clan had been squatting. The sense of genuine deja vu as well as the drugs rushing through his system create an off-kilter vibe, lending Cliff a sense of unreality (and invulnerability) as well as deterring the already-nervous would-be killers. But Cliff knows a thing or two about killing.

Early and casually, Tarantino inserts a scene alluding to the “rumors” of Cliff having murdered his wife and gotten away with it. Furthermore, while pleading with the stunt coordinator to get his friend some work, Rick alludes to his past in the armed forces, referring to Cliff as a “war hero.” So the man’s familiar with violence. And he can stand against Bruce Lee! The recollection Cliff has early in the film, depicting his sparring and trouncing of the legendary martial artist, comes back to be more than a simple comedic cutaway. When Cliff starts smashing Manson heads, his spar with Lee comes to mind and you’re thinking “yeah, if he can take Bruce Lee he can take a couple of skinny hippies.” 

More satisfying, perhaps, is the way he and Brandy work to fight off their assailants! Cliff’s relationship with Brandy, her obedience and the rapport they have, is something we’ve seen throughout the entire film. He cares for her, he talks to her like a human (“I don’t want no whining…”), and Brandy, in turn, listens. Which is why a click of the tongue sics the pit-bull on a Manson gunman and would seem to be a natural step in the man-dog relationship we’ve seen develop.

And while Cliff handles most of the attackers, one does manage to stumble, face beaten to a bloody pulp, out back, crashing into the pool where Rick is still lounging, oblivious to the carnage with his headphones on. Utterly startled, he’s got to do something to defend himself. Climbing from his pool to the toolshed nearby, what does he return with? A flamethrower, of course.

Again, the scene early on in which Tarantino shows us Rick, in character in one of his World War II Nazi-killin’ films, use the flamethrower seems like less of a throwaway now. The subsequent mention by Rick that he was indeed the one to operate the flamethrower in the movie (within the movie) is further reinforced. Sure he’s a handsome actor and a bit of a whiner, but the man does know how to use a flamethrower. And you know what? I’ve only seen Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood once, but I’d bet in the brief moment earlier in the film, where Cliff grabs a tool belt from the shed, I’d stake money on it that we see the flamethrower in some capacity. 

So through a series of visual gags (the abrupt cutaways and inserts in Hollywood are legendary) and seemingly arbitrary rambling, the insane climax of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood somehow manages to be the most-logical conclusion for the film to reach. Of course the Manson killers are fended off! With those odds, how could they not be?

Tarantino’s script manages to leave a trail of breadcrumbs vast enough to add up to a whole loaf of bread, if you’ll pardon the half-baked analogy. By ramping up the banal with bits of the wild and insane which eventually convene and erupt, that tremendous milestone of anarchy feels somehow normalized. And frankly, that’s just terrific plotting.

Furthermore, that the outlandish violence ends up delivering a happy ending–a fairytale ending promised from the very beginning–is icing on the cake. The killers were killed, the friendship remains, strengthened by blood, and a fading actor begins to socialize with the hottest filmmaker of his time. 

And we the audience just get to sit back and smile.