This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
emilyrugburn’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
(Trigger warning for mentions of assault.)
I know Quentin Tarantino is a stubborn, puff-chested dude who would probably rebuke the notion that his first film after Harvey Weinstein’s takedown needed to be, in some way, a statement on those events, given the director’s place as one of the main beneficiaries of the Weinstein empire era. He may insist it’s just a sepia character study of an aging actor and his aging pal. But that doesn’t stop me from considering the subtext of the current times the movie exists in, and it shouldn’t stop anyone else either. And for me, reading the subtext against our current times, the movie is saying something truly ugly and gross.
Some people who’ve held the plot up to today have soooort of made this point, but I think they’ve missed it a bit and not taken it far enough. Those critics of the film are basically saying: “You’ve got this stuntman who allegedly murdered his wife, and he’s a stand-in for bad men in Hollywood who do bad things, and by the end when he and Leo and the dog save the day, Quentin is suggesting that bad men can still do good things and balance it all out.” It’s like a whole film version of Dave Chappelle’s bit about how Bill Cosby “rapes AND saves, but he saves more than he rapes!” And that much of an analysis of what’s beneath the surface on Quentin’s agenda I’m on board with and I totally agree that it’s there and that it’s gross.
And BOY is it gross, by the way. Everything about the setup of Brad Pitt’s Cliff is despicable: 1) He bests Bruce Lee in a fight and it’s every bit as problematic and infuriating as we worried when we saw the trailer - Bruce never comes back in a major way, and there’s no point in the scene other than to set up that Cliff is a great fighter which could’ve easily been done without making a joke out of Bruce Lee (Cliff’s condescending line about how “anyone goes to jail” for manslaughter is ironic, it turns out...since clearly he’s an example of how some people don’t, which sounds about white). 2) Cliff turns down road head from an underage Pussy Cat not because she’s underage and men in their forties shouldn’t be looking at teenage girls sexually, but because if he’s going to jail for something, “it ain’t gonna be [that].” 3) In the quick flashback to the scene where we assume Cliff may have killed his wife, the tone of the scene is 100% “look how annoying she is - god, if he did kill her she deserved it, man.”
All of that setup of Cliff would be fine if Quentin were presenting his character as someone we’re to dislike or see as a mangy dog. But that’s not really the case at all. We follow his long February 9th adventures as we follow the same-day adventures of Rick and Sharon, who are all presented as characters we should root for and like. Totally fucked, in Cliff’s case.
So that’s where the other critics of the film are getting it right. But here’s the part I think they’re missing: Folks are suggesting that, if Rick and Cliff represent an older generation, then it’s the world of the younger Hollywood upstarts like Sharon and Polanski that they resent, and in the context of our times that means the characters are stand-ins for, respectively - the sleazy Hollywood old guard of men like Harvey (and, if I may, Quentin to a lesser extent but still to an extent) being wary of the younger millennial enforcers of the Me Too movement. So when Cliff and Rick come kick some ass at the end and prove that they have worth, their ~men-are-trashness~ is negated and the gate of the younger world is literally opened for them (Rick, at least) to be let in and still remain relevant.
Except Rick and Cliff don’t spend the movie cursing Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski. They ADMIRE Sharon and Roman. Basically Rick’s whole damn arc is wanting to be welcome at the cool kids party, and, excuse me, but a movie already did that arc better this year...it’s called BOOKSMART THANK YOU VERY MUCH!!!
Rick and Cliff spend the movie cursing HIPPIES. And in the universe of this film, it’s not Sharon Tate who is a hippie - it’s the Manson family. This is where the movie truly becomes gross to me.
But NOT for the reason some people are talking about, which is that the crazy final act has the two female Manson family members being killed way more brutally than the male member. That IS a big problem, but not for the reason everyone says.
Quick aside about how people talk about women in the Manson family btw because I’m very passionate about this - FUCK EVERY MEMBER OF THE MANSON FAMILY. The real life people deserve WORSE than what their character counterparts got. They were racist scum - literally quite the opposite of hippies. I don’t care that they were young. I don’t care that they were on drugs. They were under his tutelage for months and months and had plenty of opportunities to see the light along the way. Fuck ANY take that tries to excuse the women members as victims manipulated by a man. They were manipulated, but they were also clear-sighted, enthusiastic racists and murderers. Fuck them all forever. Periodt.
But the scene of those deaths at the end is still a huge problem and still upset me deeply, just not for that reason.
The thing I think people are missing is the subtext that, for Quentin, it’s not Sharon and Polanski who are stand-ins for millennials and the direction Hollywood and culture are headed in today. For Quentin, the fucking MANSON FAMILY are the stand-ins for our generation. And THAT...is beyond gross.
The eerie scene at Spahn Ranch that culminates with Cliff brutally beating the Manson family dude who slashed his tire - a scene I would’ve loved ten years ago, without any recent context factored in - is, for me, the most upsetting moment in the movie and the one where he really shows his hand even if he were to deny that the film is making any cultural comments. We watch Cliff pick up this guy by the hair, again and again, and gaze over at all the Manson family girls - the ones who scrutinized him with their distrustful eyes as he arrived (“No smile for me?” he was probably thinking to himself). The girls are now standing in locked fear as he taunts them with his beating of their friend. It isn’t played for laughs - they’re not kicking and screaming and calling him motherfucker like “cartoon angry ladies.” They’re clutching their chests and covering their mouths and holding back tears. It’s visceral and serious. Quentin actually taunts you with a few seconds of making them all more than static sketches of character extras (a problem that happens many times in the movie, actually...people constantly emerge and are given like a five-second audition to become a character as important as the three principles, but every time QT abandons it and moves on).
And if you’re willing to let the subtext in, here’s what I will suggest that Cliff’s beating of this guy in front of these women is meant to communicate to the Me Too movement today: “That’s right, you gossipy little callout-culture bitches - I’m gonna break your pussywhipped ~male ally’s~ face right in front of you, and maybe I’ll do it to you next. You little hive-mind, man-hating whores.”
It’s beyond gross, what he’s really digging into with that scene. It says, “Yeah, maybe Harvey was a bad guy. But you try to dismantle this whole fucking business I’ve worshipped my entire life? You try to drag ME into it and act like me spitting in Uma’s face was the same as a guy raping people? FUCK YOU. You won’t get ME.”
So NOW, with that idea in mind, the doling out of even worse violence upon the two female members of the Manson family in the final act is so incredibly upsetting. Revolting, even. The last bloody, brutal, oppressive gasp of a little man who has so completely lost his way in his own blindspotted adoration of Hollywood.
This is a man whose films I loved because they EMPOWERED the oppressed! Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill gave victims of rape and abuse the power of catharsis in seeing rapists met with savage - medieval 😎 - revenge. Basterds and Django (tho I don’t like the latter) gave victims of systemic racism and genocide the chance to see an alternate history where fascist scum are brought to justice with delirious glee. Aside from his unforgivable use of the N-word out of his OWN mouth in Pulp, I never really had the problem some other people have with QT until now.
That’s why it’s so ironic that this movie didn’t end up as the film centered solely around the Manson murders, as news originally reported it to be and fans then immediately begged for. If he had just made THAT movie instead, he actually could have continued his formidable lineage as a director who empowers people by rewriting history to punish the worst monsters of civilization. The callback of the flame-thrower at the end of Once is, after all, meant to drive home the point that Charles Manson was just another pathetic Hitler - a whiny, mediocre artist who was shut out by the industry he worshipped, and it drove him to racist, fascist delusions of grandeur, the fallout of which shattered lives forever.
QT could’ve just made that movie, and the flames from that flame-thrower would’ve felt like justice. Instead, he let his worship of his own industry - and his rage about a literal split-second twitter news cycle which threatened to shut him out of that industry - turn him into one of the very monsters he’d previously sought to burn to a crisp.
Way to go, Quentin. You embarrassed yourself in front a all those GOT damn people!