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Once Upon A Time in Hollywood's Ending, Explained

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, in theaters now.

Set in 1969, director Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood builds to the fateful night when actress Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie, is targeted by the Manson Family. That knowledge permeates the film with a feeling of dread, particularly whenever someone encounters one of the members of the cult before they turned outwardly violent.

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However, the film, like Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, tweaks history to create an unexpected ending to Sharon's story that includes LSD-dipped cigarettes and a flamethrower.

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The Night In Question

Much of the film plays out like a series of vignettes about people living in Los Angeles at that time. The story focuses partly on Sharon Tate, but primarily on her neighbor, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an aging Western star uncomfortable with the trajectory of his career. He's barely finding work as "the heavy," serving as a forgettable villain in lackluster television shows. His best friend and stuntman Cliff (Brad Pitt) is likewise out of work. The pair eventually snags a handful of roles Italian Westerns, giving Rick a bit more clout. But as they return to the United States, a newly married Rick reluctantly tells Cliff they'll have to stop working together after they return.

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To celebrate their last night out together, Rick and Cliff get incredibly drunk and head back to Rick's house. While Rick's wife sleeps, Cliff pulls out an LSD-dipped cigarette he received months earlier from Manson Family member Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), and takes his dog for a walk. Rick stumbles outside and yells at the people in a loud car outside of his house, forcing them to leave. However, he's unaware that they're members of the Manson Family, who have come to target Sharon Tate. Angered by Rick, they decide to attack his house instead, changing the course of history.

How It All Plays Out

By the time the Manson Family makes their move on Rick's house, the actor has made his way to the pool and put on headphones. By then, Cliff has returned, under the influence of LSD. The Manson Family members find a surprisingly calm Cliff. Recognizing them from when he dropped Pussycat off at the Manson commune, Cliff's joking nature distracts the three and lures them into a false sense of security. Cliff alerts his dog, who attacks the only one with a gun. That gives Cliff an opening to attack another. The scuffle leaves two of the Manson Family members dead and Cliff wounded.

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The last remaining Manson Family member crashes into the backyard, and stumbles into the pool. Rick scrambles out of the water, grabs the flamethrower that's been in his shed -- it's a souvenir from a film -- and uses it to kill the final attacker. The police arrive, and it isn't clear whether they're able to tell who the attackers were. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ends on a happy note for Rick and Sharon, as they're formally introduced to each other.

Why That's A Big Deal

Like Inglorious Basterds, one character's inclusion in history radically alters the future. While the death of Nazi high command had a more immediate geopolitical impact on the world, Sharon Tate's survival alters American culture. Her death at the hands of the Manson Family signaled the end of the counter-culture climate in the United States. By removing the sensationalism that accompanied her death, it's possible Hollywood won't be nearly as shaken as it was in real life. Likewise, "true crime" stories about Manson (and others like him) might be less prevalent as a result, as the fascination with him is snuffed out before it ever really began.

All in all, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood creates a more optimistic future for the movie industry, a fairy tale landscape that befits the title.

Written, directed and produced by Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood stars Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Margot Robbie, Burt Reynolds, Al Pacino, Tim Roth, Zoe Bell, Michael Madsen, Timothy Olyphant, Damian Lewis, Luke Perry, Emile Hirsch and Dakota Fanning.

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