As much as the title is an homage to Sergio Leone, it’s also a statement that the film is essentially a fairy tale. It’s going to give you QT’s take on the proverbial Hollywood ending. The bulk of the time is spent with DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton and Pitt’s Cliff Booth, a fading TV cowboy and his stunt double/gofer sidekick. Dalton is neighbors with Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski, at the time the hottest director in Hollywood. The Manson Family drifts around the perimeter of the movie, as does Sharon Tate. The movie is mostly a hangout film with Dalton and Booth.
DiCaprio turns my favorite performance of his. An actor playing a bad actor is a tough thing, and he pulls it off. There’s a scene in the middle opposite a child actor he’s playing against in the pilot of a western that is one of the best things I’ve seen in a while. Robbie is fantastic as Tate. If one were to complain that she has few spoken lines, I could see that as a valid complaint. My read on it is that it is an homage to a person who had a great career ahead of her and a genuine wish that she hadn’t been killed. Given Tarantino’s reputation for dialogue, it could also be an attempt to write a character without that strength. Pitt is fantastic as well, though his character is really a terrible guy.
Like the best fairy tales, it’s got a dark subtext. Pitt is no longer an active stunt man because he reputedly killed his wife and is a jackass on set. On the set of Green Hornet he gets knocked down by Bruce Lee and then throws him into a car. This has been seen as disrespectful to Lee, and I can see that from one angle. Given QT’s love for Lee, though, I think a likelier intent is to show how the old hollywood is on the way out, and Bruce Lee represents the future. As the older more conservative Hollywood is fading, the new Hollywood is taking over. Dalton and Booth aren’t the only one’s on the way out. They represent the old guard.
The ending, in which the Manson family attacks Dalton and Booth instead of Tate, et al, and are brutally murdered themselves is both thrilling and way too much. Imagine a world in which Tate and her friends survive. Maybe Polanski doesn’t commit the sex crime he’s in exile over. Dalton and Booth seem to get a second lease on work life. The knowledge that Tate died in real life, and the old guard Pitt and DiCaprio represent are definitively on the way out undercuts the happiness. As does the violence done to the Manson girls. The Manson family is hardly a sympathetic group. Them dying instead of Tate and her friends is preferable. Still the absolute brutality of their deaths is overwhelming. If QT didn’t have a reputation for portraying joyful violence against women it might play a little differently. Cliff Booth is not supposed to be a good person. But Pitt and DiCaprio are charisma machines and their (especially Pitt’s) effortless cool makes them seem better.
But that’s the point, the dark subtext. Hollywood endings are bullshit. The rest of the Manson family is still out there. Another attack could happen. Dalton and Booth’s Hollywood is going away. The loss of that old Hollywood is sad in some ways. It’s rare that saying a director is having it both ways is a good thing, but in this case I think it is. The film is an elegy to old hollywood and a sincere wish that things turned out differently. But it is well aware that that is not the case. I personally found the climactic violence stomach churning, but it does underline the point that this is a Hollywood ending, and that Hollywood endings are pure fantasy. Despite having to avert my eyes during the climatic violence the second time I saw it, I absolutely loved the movie. It’s only behind Inglourious Basterds and Jackie Brown for me. Those are his two masterpieces. With more thought and viewings I could come to see this as the third.