“It was so quiet, one of the killers would later say, you could almost hear the sound of ice rattling in cocktail shakers in the home way down the canyon”. That’s the opening line of the book ‘Helter Skelter: The true story of the Manson Murders’ by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry. Charles Manson died in 2017. “Five days after the killings he engineered, the Woodstock Music Festival began in upstate New York. Thousands arrived at the festival site. They may not have known it, but the ’60s, with its message of peace and love, was over. All courtesy of one man.”, an article concluded after the death of this ‘madman’. It was the same year when news surfaced about Tarantino writing a script about the Manson murder.
Rick Dalton, a former famous actor for 50’s western tv shows, is struggling to stay in the limelight. His stunt double cum closest friend Cliff Booth with a ‘give-no-fuck’ attitude spends most of his time as a second personality of his boss Rick (Thanks to Dicaprio and Pitt’s performance, the on-screen chemistry of Rick and Cliff is enigmatic). Even without knowing anything about the film beforehand, if you enter the theatre and find out that the film’s timeline is 1969 and one of the protagonists (Rick Dalton) lives in a house in LA and his new neighbors are Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, then you would immediately figure out what film is all about. But as the story unfolds, the film tells and shows mostly of Rick and Cliff’s daily whereabouts. Through inter-cuts it shows the insights of Polanski and Tate’s life, but those are mere glimpses. For me, it was a bit confusing and intriguing at the same time. I couldn’t see exactly how the climax (of course the Manson murder, I thought so) is going to play out and what kind of role these two men are going to play.
The first half spent a chunk of its time on film within a film style. Rick is in a shooting, uttering his dialogues in an appreciable way. At one point he forgets his line, the camera moves back to a previous position and starts again as the crew reminded him of the lines: Strikingly stylistic because of the singular camera, part of the film we are seeing as well as part of the shooting going on within the film. Cliff drives around LA for errands while Rick is busy with the shooting. The ’60s (69’s to be precise) LA and soundtrack that works like a jukebox of rock’n roll and commercials; those are the instances that you would see the ‘film buff’ Tarantino is in full swing. There is one instance when Charles Manson comes to Polanski’s house in search of Terry, the previous owner of the house. I sensed a chill that moment, to be honest. Whenever Sharon Tate (portrayed as a cheerful person by Robbie) was shown on the screen, especially when she goes into the movie theatre to watch a film she is in and expresses a childlike joy, I saw her dreadful fate looming over (I literally had no clue how the film ends). During the bloody intermission, the confusion was still lingering over me, about how these two characters, Rick and Cliff, are placed in the story of Manson murder.
Then comes the second half. Cliff ends up in ‘Spahn Ranch’, which Tarantino masterfully blended with comedy and thrill. The name of the place is enough for the audience to know what it means; the nest of the Manson family. Slowly a voice over takes over the narrative almost in a news reporting fashion. We saw the pregnant Sharon Tate which means we are closer to the climax. We saw Rick flying over to Italy for some Spaghetti western job and coming back with a wife. And finally, we are thrown into the final night of 8th August, 1969. Rick and Cliff having their farewell drink-the -shit-out. Tate and her friends are also in their party-it-all-out mood. The famous four members of Manson family arrive for the devil’s work. And then the climax happens the way Tarantino wanted it to happen. And that’s the exact moment when all my confusions went away. It became clear to me why Tarantino did what he did in the first half. When Cliff goes into his bad ass mood, I was experiencing a strange pleasure as well as a heaviness in my mind. A heaviness because I knew what was on the screen is not the truth. The truth is completely opposite.
In the final scene Rick is invited in by Sharon Tate after all the violence ends. Tate and her friend Serbing are well aware and kind of a fan of Rick. The camera flew over with a movement that is usual in fantasy stories. Tate comes out and hugs Rick. The music in the scene (Originally from ‘The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean’ composed by Maurice Jarre), at least for me, works like a piece from a fantasy movie too. “Once upon a time…”, that is how classic fairy tales open up, I remembered while leaving the theatre.
P.S. – You may feel that this film doesn’t have a story at all. But for me, always, Tarantino makes films about films rather than films about life itself. In ‘Once Upon a time in Hollywood’ he is telling you a story about the ’50s and ’60s Hollywood, especially of western movies and TV shows. A bit of prior knowledge about them would help you to connect with the film.