A Theory About What’s Actually Happening In The Controversial Ending Of ‘Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’

Before we begin, a few disclaimers.

Disclaimer no. 1: If you haven’t seen Once Upon A Time In Hollywood yet, stop reading. What follows is one long spoiler. Why did you click on a post that had the words “ending” and “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” in the headline in the first place? Go see the movie already and then come back.

Disclaimer no. 2: There might not be a worse sentence to see on the internet than “I have a theory about a Quentin Tarantino movie.” This is not an attempt to “solve” Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. I am not suggesting that Quentin Tarantino necessarily intended any of this. I’m just saying that this is how I have chosen to interpret the movie. This interpretation has added to my enjoyment of the film, and I hope it does the same for you. If it doesn’t, by all means laugh it off and never think of it again. If it does add to your enjoyment, however, make sure to give me credit.

And … away we go.

Like a lot of people I know, I saw Once Upon A Time In Hollywood multiple times this weekend. I will likely see it again in the next week or so. The first time I saw it, I mostly liked it, but I left feeling a little unsatisfied. The second time, I flat-out loved it. This is not unusual for a Tarantino movie. But the pivotal difference between these viewings is that I perceived the ending of the movie a little differently the second time around.

As we all know — again, if you haven’t seen the movie, scram — Once Upon A Time ends with three members of the Manson Family invading the home of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and being viciously murdered by Rick and his loyal stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). The most spectacular death occurs in Rick’s swimming pool, when one of the hippie girls is incinerated by the same flame-thrower than Rick used in The 14 Fists of McClusky.

The first time I saw the movie, the audience cheered when Rick walked out with that flame thrower. As for me … I wasn’t so sure. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is a movie about obsolescence brought on by middle age and the passing of the generational torch. It’s also about male friendship, a near-romantic coupling between a movie star and his gopher who is “more than a brother, but less than a wife.” The movie hinges largely on the easygoing chemistry between DiCaprio and Pitt, and Tarantino’s empathy for people (and the culture they represent) who can see themselves fade from the world in real-time, like Michael J. Fox starring at his disappearing hand in Back To The Future. Meanwhile, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) is a charming, effervescent presence. But she’s kept mostly at arm’s length as a symbol of the forces that are putting these guys out to pasture.

Some critics have questioned why Tarantino chose to juxtapose this story of two fictional late-’60s show-biz lifers against the real-life Manson murders. Manson’s significance as an “end of the innocence” signpost for the ’60s is self-evident. And revisionist takes on historical tragedies are now part of Tarantino’s brand. But was inserting Manson in the mix really necessary?

As I watched Once Upon A Time In Hollywood for the first time, the ending didn’t quite land for me. This violent, unexpectedly comic climax felt incongruous with the meandering, melancholic movie that proceeded it. Tarantino seemed headed in a more thoughtful and less happy — is “happy” the right word? — direction. Before the Manson Family shows up, we see that Rick and Cliff have been set adrift as the 1970s loom. Rick will have to sell his house in the Hollywood Hills, and Cliff will be cut loose, without even his modest employment as Rick’s handler to keep him occupied and financially supported. It’s suggested that their friendship will also end, as most friendships do when two people are no longer in same proximity.

But then the Manson Family shows up and suddenly … everything seems better? Rick and Cliff get to feel useful again by dispatching with these dirty hippies. And then Rick, incredibly, sees a wish expressed at the start of the movie fulfilled: He’s invited to the Polanski residence for a meet-and-greet with rising star Sharon Tate. Surely, a career renaissance (perhaps a la old cowboy actor Ben Johnson in The Last Picture Show) is just around the corner.

I didn’t hate that ending. But it was definitely the part of the movie I liked the least the first time I saw it. But then I watched Once Upon A Time In Hollywood a second time, and I saw the ending in a different light. And it made me love the movie unequivocally.

This time, I remembered Cliff’s acid cigarette.

You remember the acid cigarette, right? Cliff buys it for 50 cents from a hippie girl in February, and then he leaves it at Rick’s house so he can trip while wandering around in the woods nearby. In the movie, Cliff finally smokes the cigarette that fateful night in August, right before he takes his pit bull Brandy for a walk. Basically, it’s the last moment of peace in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood before all hell breaks loose.

As Cliff departs, he says, “And away we go.” The trip has officially commenced. And the acid cigarette explains everything that happens afterward.

As Cliff and Brandy walk down Cielo Drive, they pass the car carrying the Manson killers. Does Cliff see who’s in the car? Do the killers see him? The car has a very loud muffler, so it would be impossible for him not to notice the car. And this isn’t the first time they’ve all crossed paths. Cliff was at the Spahn Ranch six months earlier. Let’s say Cliff glances over and sees their faces. They look familiar but he doesn’t instantly make the connection. But they’re now implanted in his brain as he goes out to wander the woods and the outer reaches of his consciousness.

In the “real world,” these hippies are about to murder Sharon Tate and her housemates. But in Cliff’s acid-addled imagination, they’re about to be players in a hyper-violent revenge story vindicating him and his good buddy Rick.

After Cliff walks down that hill, we see Rick confront the hippies in the road over the loud muffler. The hippies skulk back down the hill to park the car. (Where is Cliff? Didn’t he just walk this way?) In the car, the hippies realize that the angry rich guy is the star of Bounty Law. Turns out they all love Bounty Law! Why is that? Because in Cliff’s mind, everybody thinks Rick is boss.

At some point, we see Cliff and Brandy back at the house. Apparently, they never noticed the loud car or the hippies arguing over one of their posse members (Maya Hawke) suddenly sneaking away. This seems odd. Though Cliff is also clearly tripping his balls off.

Then the hippies burst in. Cliff realizes that he’s seen each of them before. “Are you real?” he asks Tex, who says that he’s the devil. But isn’t that what people in hallucinations always say? (Cliff isn’t actually at the house anyway. He’s in the woods with Brandy, experiencing this vision.)

After that, Cliff performs feats of super-human strength against the killers. He stops Tex’s stabbing motions without breaking a sweat. He repeatedly slams a hippie girl’s head against a wall. Finally, after the last hippie escapes the house and hurls herself into the pool, Rick whips out his flame-thrower. Why in the world would Rick still have the flame-thrower? It makes no sense that the studio would let him have it after The 14 Fists Of McClusky. But it makes perfect sense if you see it as a product of Cliff’s trip.

When the cops show up, we see Rick making a big fuss over Cliff as paramedics take him away. Rick offers to come with him to the hospital, but Cliff won’t hear of it. He appreciates Rick’s gesture, but Cliff’s purpose in life is to carry Rick’s load. The gesture is enough.

“You’re a good friend,” Rick says. It’s the highest compliment possible for Cliff. “I try,” says Cliff, forever the cowboy shrugging off any suggestion that he’s a hero.

Cliff then leaves but the trip continues for the audience. It turns out that Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) and Sharon are Rick Dalton fans! They not only know Bounty Law, but Jay even remembers the flame-thrower from The 14 Fists Of McClusky. (Again — in Cliff’s mind, everybody loves Rick.) Why wouldn’t Polanski want to put Rick in his movie? Why can’t Cliff and Rick be together forever, in their Hollywood Hills paradise untainted by paradigm-shifting disaster?

When you watch the ending of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood in this way, it becomes precisely the wistful conclusion this wistful film deserves. It doesn’t revise history. It takes a walk down the street away from where history is about to unfold, a walk toward a less traumatic (though painfully temporary) escape.

The acid cigarette is the key that opens the door to understanding the whole thing.