A Spoiler-Filled Discussion Of ‘Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’ And Its Various Controversies

Senior Editor

Now that Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is out (and doing pretty well for itself with the highest ever opening weekend for Tarantino) and you’ve clearly been warned in this headline, it’s time to discuss all those things about the movie we weren’t allowed to talk about in our two reviews of the movie (in fact, rumor has it Sony wasn’t happy about “spoilers” last week). All of which is to say… THIS ARTICLE WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS. DON’T READ IT IF YOU WANT TO AVOID THEM. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

That Ending!

Once Upon A Time‘s bloody crescendo of an ending seems to be soaking up most of the post-release conversation and probably intentionally so. It feels polarizing by design. In a movie that didn’t scream “Tarantino movie” for most of its run time (though it did often do so at an average volume), the bloody ending almost felt like overcompensation, as if because there were no murders or exploding squibs in the first four-fifths of the movie the last bit had to double down on broken bones and spurting blood and brutal pitbull attacks.

Thing is… I hadn’t minded the lack of killing. The scene at Spahn Ranch — oddly reminiscent of Midsommar — evoked the full range emotions, probably everything we’re usually supposed to feel in a bloody revenge sequence, and with less blood outlay. In a way, it was also more brutal than the usual Tarantino severed limbs and exploding heads, because when Cliff Booth starts knocking out Clem’s teeth, we’re still experiencing it as a literal reality. We haven’t yet started to think about what we’re watching as a movie — history and alternate history haven’t started to separate.

Yet, while the bloody ending for me wasn’t as cathartic as similar scenes in Django or Inglourious, or as funny as in Hateful Eight, it did accomplish a few things. In probably the first Tarantino movie that could legitimately be called “languid” or “meandering,” the ending was the first scene that fit the film clearly into a specific genre. The last scene told us this was a revenge movie even if we hadn’t known it until that exact moment.

The movie also felt like a tease, maybe even a prequel or an origin story. Part of me still wants to see Tarantino direct an alternate history version of the ’70s where the Manson Family murders never happened. Most people use the Manson murders (along with the Hells Angels stabbing a guy at Altamont four months later) as the symbolic turning point when sixties optimism morphed into seventies paranoia — the place where the wave crashed and rolled back, as Hunter Thompson put it in Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas. What if those movies had never happened? How would Quentin Tarantino imagine it? I’d love to see that as an HBO series, a kind of West Coast version of The Deuce.

In a less conceptual sense, that orgy-o’-violence ending capped off an almost three-hour movie in a way that left many of us wanting more. In that way it was a feat. That being said, I was enjoying Once Upon A Time just fine as… well, whatever it was. As not a revenge movie. The ending jarred me out of the movie reality and into thoughts of Tarantino’s psychology and motivations. It gave the movie “purpose” and an ending in the abstract, but it also felt a little like Tarantino not entirely trusting himself to do something different, when that something different was totally working. (Also, our Steven Hyden has a theory about the ending that centers around the acid-laced cigarette you should check out.)

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