This is not a review; it is a study and a question. So please be aware that spoilers live here.
What Tarantino has done is a bit like BBC hit show Peaky Blinders. He has taken historical characters from criminal folklore and changed the outcome for them. Left physical and historical factors intact, but has played with the outcome and, of course, why not? After all, just like the Coen brothers said when William H. Macy expressed dismay at them falsely claiming Fargo was a true story: “This is fiction, man!”
To the movie itself. Brad Pitt plays Cliff Booth, a retired Special Forces soldier, stuntman, happy-go-lucky charmer, and deadly warrior. He is assisting his friend, Rick Dalton, an actor fallen on dry times, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.
It is set in the so-called golden age of Hollywood at the end of the 1960s and it is based upon the Tate/LaBianca murders committed by the followers of Charles Manson.
So here is the spoiler: Sharon Tate, played with great aplomb by Margot Robbie, and her friend Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) do not get murdered at 10050 Cielo Drive, Beverly Hills. Tate is out at dinner and the hippy-killers are chased off threateningly by Dalton (DiCaprio). They then decide — in accordance to Manson’s “teachings”— to kill Dalton instead. They pass the LSD-influenced Booth as he walks his robust but likable dog, Brandy, and attempt to kill all inside. In typical Tarantino intertwining and coincidence, the LSD-infused cigarette Booth had smoked was given to him by a member of the Manson family, a hitcher he struck a friendship with earlier in the film. After having seen him best Bruce Lee and annihilate one of the Manson Family thugs in an ill-fated trip to the commune, we the viewers are confident that Manson’s acolytes will not be successful. The plenty-capable Booth overpowers and, with the help of a flame-thrower-toting Rick, finishes off the would-be Helter-Skelter killers in severely enjoyable Tarantino-esque ultraviolence.
The conundrum: Was it okay to take artistic licence and make it so everyone involved finished up in a different position? Was it okay to change the outcome in the name of entertainment?
The answer would depend on three things: The outcome itself, the taste and class with which said outcome was achieved, and how these changes would be perceived.
The outcome itself: Firstly, I will not presume any of the knowledge people reading this will have on the Tate/LaBianca murders. I am very aware because in the last few years I have learned more about them. Until recently, I was not aware of the brutality, and more so, the calculated cruelty with which these horrible events were executed.
They were cruel, sadistic, evil, illogical, and totally unfair. An eighteen-year-old boy was killed in cold blood because he just happened to be passing by. Then, upon entering the Polanski/Tate residence, they declared “I am the devil and I have come to do the devil’s work.” What followed was butchery most cowardly. They beat, tortured, and stabbed innocent people. Sharon Tate, who was full term in her pregnancy, begged to be allowed to live, give birth, and then would happily present herself for death. The response to her offer was to ridicule, refuse, and then murder her. This lovable actress; a sweet, helpful, philanthropic, and beautiful soul.
A by-product of these events that is particularly sickening is the image of the so-called Manson Family as somehow being irreverent and a symbol of the counterculture. Seen as an antihero by many, Charles Manson was nothing more than a racist coward, a manipulative loser who was not good enough to make it in music so turned to murder. Granted, he was raised in the most horrific way and suffered abuse that no child should, but that was never Tate’s fault. So I wish to make it clear, the Manson Family were not cool, they were never a symbol of the oppressed and in no way were underdogs. He and his cohorts were murderous sociopaths. So it is right that they be conquered here to make up for the years of unspoken admiration by lost youth and pretentious junky losers the world over. Quentin here has flipped the misconception on its side and given it to those who deserved it and taken it from the wrongdoers— a fantastic thing.
To see the would-be perpetrators of that pernicious act beaten, eviscerated, burned, and totalled into the submission their cowardly malaise entitled them to was a triumph of the screen. We go to the cinema for precisely that. To see the righteous prosper while the evil suffer. It was most definitely done with the required taste and class, and with plentiful wit, as to be expected from one of the greatest directors of cinema.
Regarding the perception, there is a school of thought that will tell you it is not right. Sharon Tate’s sister was extremely against the project. However, with tact and diplomacy Quentin sent her the script and invited her to set. She was quickly turned around, even lending some of Sharon’s original jewellery to Margot Robbie. Fellow ground-breaking director and husband to the murdered Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski gave no vocal objections. He also received a copy with an assurance of “nothing to worry about.”
Whatever the response, it is not universal. There are a lot of alternate views. The sort of people that go to the cinema based on what they want people to think of them, they called it “babyish” and “fantasy” (since when was that a bad thing?) They like to go to little cinemas with tiny screens and huge prices. They do not go to rid themselves of the mediocre banality that the working-week engraves. They do not go to enjoy and relish in the collective catharsis of true movie-lovers, not to be wowed, entertained and to see the world get better. Rather, they go to be impressive, to be able to say they only watch films filmed in 8mm cine. They want people to hear them talking about a “fascinating think piece” that they actually hated, but because it was a Kosovo independent release about a Yiddish mute farmer that is seen through the eyes of a window-sill, they feel it has enough confusing obscurity to make them feel superior. Let those people leave before us for we will come out jubilant after seeing history changed and the world righted!
We come away after the wicked are punished. The innocent saved and goodness preserved. Of course, we know that is not how true-life played out. However, this is how we wanted it to, we are reminded of how the world is a good place after all. A triumph for how our species is hoping to be. A testament to being better. Saving the girl and getting invited for drinks.
Sadly, it did not happen, but we wish it did. And to all the victims of that heinous crime back in 1969, it shows that the filth who did these things are forgotten and the goodness the said victims deserved is what we still long for. So to Mr. Manson: you were not a counterculture icon; you were a vicious little racist thug that died like a rat in a cage. Mr. Tarantino has shown that we are better than you and you are forgotten. This was a wonderful piece of theatrical whimsy and long may it be seen so.