Much has been said as of late about the ability of a filmmaker to deftly subvert the expectations of an audience. In the crowning achievement of his already much lauded career, Quentin Tarantino shows how most directors attempting to do this are mere amateurs aspiring to greatness he already possesses.
It probably wouldn't have worked as well if this film had been made by anyone else. But Tarantino is a director who is unafraid of controversy, and that fearlessness has made him the target of much scrutiny. He's been called everything from a raging narcissist, to a sadist, to a racist, to a misogynist, by legions of online squabblers. Keeping these harsh critiques of his previous works in mind helps us better understand the approach Tarantino takes on this film, especially under the umbrella of the latest mudslinging unleashed by the #metoo movement and his connections to Harvey Weinstein. What Tarantino does with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is build a meta narrative that toys with all of his detractors and plays with preconceived notions of what his work will be like. For one thing, this film doesn't ever feature the use of the N-word, but it does have another racial epithet that has yet to be mentioned by anyone, and isn't that odd?
The choice to make this film about the events leading up to and around the murder of Sharon Tate was quite simply a stroke of mad genius. People thusly have their brains primed exponentially to see bloody violence unfold before their eyes, knowing that they are about to watch a film made by someone unafraid of gratuitous bloodbaths, and that the Sharon Tate murders are notoriously grisly scenes from Hollywood's history books, and are what made the Manson family an infamous household name.
The subversion begins in the expectation before you even sit down to view the film, because although the hook of the story is that it is about the Sharon Tate murders, the story is really not about that at all. It's more about the IDEA of those deaths, and what about them changed America and Hollywood forever. The concept, which Tarantino brings to fruition in such a cunning way its almost too good to be true, is that the fixation or fascination with Charles Manson and his murderous cult, is what forever flipped the switch that has made us addicted as a country to bloodlust and serial killer stories. Tarantino wants us to imagine a world more innocent, a world of simplicity and just humanity trying to get along with its own humanity, a fairy tale if you will of a more pure artistic endeavor.
The story told here is about two aging men in Hollywood who are reaching the end of their careers, and how they're struggling to hold on. Cliff Boothe (Brad Pitt) is a stunt man and stunt double of Rick Dalton (Leo DiCaprio). We get two drastically different peeks into the lives of people who work equally as hard to make Hollywood magic take place on the screen. In a wonderful segment near the start of the picture, Dalton is dropped off at his mansion in the hills to rehearse lines floating in his swimming pool sipping expensive scotch, while Boothe, who lives literally in a trailer behind the screen of a drive-in theater (he literally LIVES behind the scenes) eats boxed macaroni and cheese and watches a small beat up TV set. The unifying feature of this moment, is that both men live alone, and although their lives are separated by an immense difference of wealth, they both care about their work and are devoted to it. It's a stunning criticism, and yet, a kind of love letter to the people who make movies, as well as those who watch them.
The laborous attention to detail Tarantino shows in recreating the time period of 1969 Los Angeles is another kind of love letter. The movie is beautiful, no stone left unturned in its pursuit of capturing the most accurate illusion of this simpler time of American history. The story thusly follows Boothe and Dalton in their struggles to remain relevant while at the same time granting us glimpses of a rising star, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) moves into the house near Dalton and has married Roman Polanski. Her life seems dreamlike, the one any woman who ever wanted to be a star aspires to have. But the audience knows tragedy lies on the horizon.
Again, a lesser director would have surely botched this complex play of a multi-narrative allegory and meta exploration of an audience craving violence almost like the catharsis of the Roman coliseum. But Tarantino, he is a true artist. Just sit back and enjoy the ride. His recreation of historic Hollywood is a marvel. His characters all feel wonderfully alive. And then there's their personal struggles and the promise of a violent climax to keep us enthralled.
The play upon our bloodlust unfolds in three acts. First, there's the way the Manson family is handled. Then, there's the buildup of Boothe's character as the ultimate stuntman badass. And finally, there's the fateful night of the Tate murders. The first two are deft subversion in that they are not what they appear or what the audience thinks will happen. Charles Manson is on the screen for this film maybe ten seconds. The Manson family compound is revealed to be a hippie commune and even when Boothe goes there to check on his friend, the escalating tension is played out like a cock tease.
The buildup of Boothe's character is done by subverting audience expectation that Bruce Lee was the greatest Hollywood badass. In a much criticized scene, Boothe and Lee have a scuffle, in which Boothe is proven to be the better man. Almost anyone would have expected Bruce Lee to kick his ass. But Boothe needs to win to prepare us for the final moments and to also show us that in Hollywood, things are never the same in the real world as they are on the silver screen.
The final act of the film is the ultimate subversion of audience expectation. Both a brilliant undermining of our bloodlust, and at the same time, giving us that catharsis on a different platter. Tarantino thwarts our expectations, but satisfies them in the same sequence of events. It's perhaps the greatest twist in movie history. It's Tarantino saying to the audience, here's that violence you ordered, only it is not the violence the audience wanted at all. We get to see a brutal, and I do mean brutal, unfolding of violence and bloody death, only it is the opposite of the events we have been primed to expect. It's almost funny, the actions are so absurdly over the top and graphic, but most people are going to be shocked and wondering what the fuck just happened.
This is Tarantino's masterpiece. And it could never have happened if his previous experiences with Hollywood had played out differently. He's making such a profound statement about violence here, I'm afraid most people will not get it. And that, my friends, is why it's so special. If you walk away from this movie disappointed, Tarantino is wanting you to ask yourself why that is. Why would you WANT to see a woman and her unborn baby be murdered? Why would anyone? Wasn't what you witnessed here enough? The answers are frightening, and are honestly how this world doomed itself to hell. At least we got to see this movie before it happened.