Characters in Quentin Tarantino movies do not go gently into that good night. They're shot multiple times, slashed with samurai swords or driven to their demise inside a 'death-proof' car. A 2013 Variety article estimates that the director's killed as many as 560 characters over his first seven films. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is largely bloodless by this measure…until that bonkers final act. But we'll get to that in a bit.
Tarantino's ninth feature is an ode to 60s Hollywood, juxtaposing the lives of has-been ageing actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), now reduced to bit roles in TV Westerns, and the youthful Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), in the bloom of her career, fresh off her marriage to director Roman Polanski. Their lives are intertwined to the point of them being neighbours at the Cielo Drive compound. There are glimpses into the internal processes of actors, nostalgia-soaked shots of LA and driving. So much driving.
We expect the idyll to come to an end with the Manson Family Murders of 1969, in which the heavily pregnant Tate was stabbed to death. Tarantino plays with our expectations, giving us a play-by-play of the night in question with agonising slowness. When death comes knocking, it's not at Tate's door. Stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), whose job it is to put himself in danger so Dalton isn't hurt, does at home what he does on set every day. He fends off the three intruders while the oblivious Dalton floats lazily in his backyard pool. It's in keeping with the characterization of both friends – earlier in the film, Dalton, whose persona is inextricably linked to the cowboy role that made him famous, wears a cowboy costume and recites scripted lines on a fake set. At the same time, Booth's navigating hostile tensions and braving the suspicion of Charles Manson's acolytes at an actual ranch to check on an old friend. He's everything Dalton imagines himself to be.
It's something the movie hints at once before, when Dalton, reading a novel on set, begins bawling at a character who feels "a little more useless every day". It seems like an obvious parallel to his own loosening grasp on stardom, but when you take into account that that character is described as "the greatest cowboy in all the land" until he gets shot in the hip and compare it to Booth being the real hero of act three and getting stabbed in the hip as a result, it's evident who the stealth hero of the novel (and by extension, the film) really is.
Booth sets his pitbull, Brandy, to work on one of the cult members and repeatedly smashes the head of another against a rotary telephone, a wall, and various other surfaces. After he hits the third in the face with a can of dog food, she stumbles into the backyard, where the bewildered Dalton swiftly dispatches her with a flamethrower. Tarantino's choice of weapon is telling. In another of his revisionist history films, Inglorious Basterds, it's canisters of nitrate film that are ignited to set ablaze a theatre full of Nazi officials, their highly flammable nature making them perfect for the job. Here, the flamethrower happens to be a memento from the set of Rick's movie The 14 Fists of McCluskey (where it's also used to set Nazis on fire). It's a literal interpretation of how the tools of cinema have the power to rewrite history.
Tarantino takes the air out of the real-life brutality of the cult murders by turning the would-be murderers into bumbling idiots, their deaths made cartoonish and over the top. "I'm the devil, and I'm here to do the devil's business" – a line said by the real Tex Watson to his victims – is paraphrased by an LSD-tripping Cliff to the police as, "I'm the devil and I'm here to do devil shit." Even the drunk Dalton brandishing a flamethrower at his victim gets laughs. It's not the first time historical villains have been made the butt of a joke in a Tarantino film – a lengthy scene in Django Unchained sees Klu Klux Klan members arguing over who cut the eyeholes in their white hoods; they're too small and impossible to see out of.
The intruders never make it to the Polanski household. Tate remains safe and sound. As the 'Once Upon A Time' part of the title tells us, this is Tarantino's fairytale ending. He not only shows us the LA that was, but one that could have been. But by saving Tate in the film, he ensures we feel the loss of her even more acutely than ever. The film's ending is heartbreaking precisely because it isn't true. Only in that universe is the effervescent Tate, who radiates pure joy at watching audience members appreciate her performance onscreen, who dances like nobody's watching, who buys thoughtful gifts for her husband on his birthday, alive and well. When we hear her voice on the intercom towards the end, it feels surreal, almost like a phone call from the other side of history.
As the injured Booth is loaded onto an ambulance stretcher, Dalton tells him, "You're a good friend, Cliff." It mirrors a scene earlier in the film, where to boost Dalton's self-confidence at a particularly vulnerable moment, Booth reminds him he's "Rick fucking Dalton". Dalton has his own established identity, even though he needs some reminding from time to time. Booth's is inextricably wrapped up in being his stuntman/best friend. His value will always lie in the actions he performs for his friend. While Booth makes the lonely trip to the hospital, Dalton gets the golden ticket to the Polanski house at the end of the film, something he'd been angling for for a while. The film ends with his meeting Tate, his star presumably on the rise again. A star is saved. A star is born.