Quentin Tarantino told you right up front that “Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood” was a fairy tale. In the very title alone, he embedded a significant clue about the nature of the story he was telling.
Yes, it would have all of the expected flourishes, mesmerizing meditations, ear candied dialogue, cinematic allusions and instances of hyper-stylized violence that the filmmaker has become known for over the course of his 27-year career. But it would also have a fairy tale ending — as envisioned through the filmmaker’s unique lens — in which history as we know it is defied, and the infamous murders of August 9, 1969 never occurred, with the followers of Charles Manson thwarted by the actions of actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), thus ensuring that Rick’s neighbor Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) survives, along with her unborn child and her houseguests, and Rick even forms the beginnings of a bond with her that might ensure a vibrant future film career guided by her auteur husband Roman Polankski.
It’s a happy ending all around: fairy tale wrapped in a revenge fantasy, the latter aspect a familiar trademark of Tarantino cinema. But what if, in fact, just about every movie in the filmmaker’s canon, was exactly that: a fairy tale that at a key point departs from “reality” in favor of following a fantastical path of vengeance?
Tarantino’s done this before, of course. In “Inglourious Basterds,” the titular commando unit gets the honor of mowing down Nazi Germany’s Adolph Hitler and his crony Joseph Goebbels with machine gun fire after trapping them in a burning theater in 1944, shaving about a year off of World War II and effectively exterminating the Nazi leadership and bringing an early end to the persecution of Jews. It’s another fairy tale ending that creates a violent, viscerally satisfying alternate universe conclusion to a grim chapter in history.
Hilter and the Manson family have been among the most prominent boogeymen of the last century, existing as embodiments of pure evil in the popular psyche for generations. And their rough ends in Tarantino’s films are equal parts operatic and almost cartoonishly over-the-top, cathartically excising their hold on our collective culture if only for a little bit — revenge fantasy writ large.
(It should be noted that it’s the actual murder culprits of the Manson family, and not their orchestrator Manson himself, that pays the ultimate price for their real world infamy)
Take that concept further: consider that in perhaps every one of his films — not just the one where the revenge figures are well-known culprits of historic offense — Tarantino takes us into an alternate reality (a shared one, actually, in which fictional brands like Red Apple Cigarettes and Big Kahuna Burger reign ascendant) where his characters, one way or another, achieve the justice that they crave, even when in the “real world” events may have come to a far less satisfying conclusion.
Tarantino has explained that his films take place in one of two shared continuities: the “Realer Than Real” universe, mostly rooted in our reality, where his characters can mingle with both actual historical figures and those from other Tarantino films (“Reservoir Dogs,” “True Romance,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Death Proof,” “Inglourious Basterds,” “Django Unchained,” “The Hateful Eight” and, now, “Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood”); and the “Movie Movie” universe, which exist in a heightened reality that include overt supernatural elements (“Natural Born Killers,” “From Dusk Till Dawn,” and the “Kill Bill” films). “Jackie Brown,” derived from an Elmore Leonard novel, exists in its own unique reality (albeit one shared with another Leonard adaptation, “Out of Sight”).
But in both universes, revenge fantasies are common logs for the narrative fire, and even in the Realer Than Real universe, inhabited by characters whose speech patterns and pop cultural interests sound like they were transcribed from actual coffee shop conversations and whose emotional journeys play as absorbingly authentic, there come key, dire moments when reality seems to go out the window and suddenly an action movie/comic book aesthetic kicks in: a character we’re rooting for is wronged, and it takes an unreal act to escape — and enact revenge.
Is this Tarantino sending a signal? When one of his films suddenly amps up the violence in a way that seems particularly escalated from what we’ve been seeing — as happens in the otherwise very grounded “Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood,” when the Manson minions are about to commence?
Are we seeing bloody fairy tale endings when things start to get nuts, as when:
–In “Reservoir Dogs,” the mortally wounded undercover cop Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), gutshot by a civilian and tortured by Mr. Blonde, provokes a wild guns-drawn standoff among the band of thieves he’s infiltrated that leads to the death of nearly every one of them, except the oft-abused Mr. Pink. In a less convenient reality, did Mr. Orange just bleed out while the career criminals escaped unpunished?
–In “Pulp Fiction,” does Butch (Bruce Willis) really miraculously escape his imprisonment alongside Marcellus at the hands of Maynard, Zed and the Gimp, only to return with a katana as his instrument of revenge of choice to slay his captors? Or was that merely a preferable fantasy in light of the grim fate that actually awaited him?
–In “Death Proof,” did the intended female victims of Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) actually outdrive him, corner him and beat him to death in amusingly over-the-top fashion? Or in a less Realer Than Real world was their ending less triumphant?
–In “Django Unchained,” could Django really have actually survived the torture he received at the hands of Billy Crash?
–In “The Hateful Eight,” do Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) and Major Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), each arguably the least hateful of the eight, survive the backstabbing skullduggery to see Daisy Domergue hanged for her crimes.
–In the “Kill Bill” films, did The Bride (Uma Thurman) ever even really wake from her coma to pursue her retribution?
Examples of escaping seemingly really, really certain doom pervade his filmography and each unlikely, larger-than-life triumph in an otherwise reality-rooted universe suggests that Tarantino has, despite all of the blood, grime and grittiness, been spinning a very specific kind of storytelling, extremely bloody tales, but ones where the good guys win, even when they sometimes die, in keeping with the Grimm tradition.
He’s been telling us fairy tales all along.