75 Years Later: Hitchcock’s ‘Lifeboat’ is Suspense Served By Simplicity
‘Lifeboat’ reminds us that great creativity can still be displayed on a very small canvas, and that at times the simplest ideas can turn out to be some of the most memorable.
A bomb explodes beneath a dinner table — that’s surprise. But a bomb that ticks away, unbeknownst to those seated around it? One scenario grants film audiences fifteen seconds of action, while the other can provide fifteen minutes of excruciating tension. No convoluted plot, no puzzle-box story structuring is needed; a simple setup with a clear misfortune as the potential result can be just as effective at keeping eyes glued to the screen as any tangled web a writer may weave. This paraphrasing of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous explanation illustrates how suspense is best served by simplicity, and of all the Master’s masterpieces, there is no greater example of that than his own 1944 gem, Lifeboat.
After an attack by a German U-boat, nine people are adrift in a small lifeboat, stranded somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. Eight are American or British, all former passengers or crew aboard a merchant marine ship once bound for England with supplies, all now desperate survivors of a torpedoed sunken wreck. The ninth castaway is the bomb: the Nazi captain of the very enemy submarine that initiated the destruction, pulled from the water after his own command was also sent to the sea floor during the engagement. Is he truly grateful for the mercy shown by those he tried to annihilate, or beneath the friendly and helpful facade is he secretly plotting against his saviors? Right from the beginning, we’re given all the working elements we’re ever going to have in this story — this is the setting, these are the characters, that is the potential threat. With exposition out of the way, Hitchcock can concentrate on what he does best: lighting the fuse.
There’s always something satisfying about doing as much as one can with as little as possible. Films like 12 Angry Men or Moon don’t have nearly the variety of cinematic ingredients to work with as many others, yet somehow achieve more with less. Limitations often inspire greatness in the arts, as creators are forced to become truly creative in order to overcome everything that would rein them in. Often these restrictions are born out of financing, but it can be thrilling to see them self-imposed, and appreciative juices can easily get flowing when watching a pro at the peak of their powers challenge themselves to the fundamentals.
Hitchcock must have also had a fondness for these types of basic premises — he created similar one-location situations in Rope and Rear Window — but Lifeboat takes this idea to an even more restrained form, in the process attaining a result that may not have been possible with all the normal crutches a Hollywood filmmaker relies upon to maintain variety. By embracing the confinements of the cell he himself created (the movie is based on his idea, originally offered to Ernest Hemingway and eventually fleshed out by John Steinbeck), Hitchcock flourishes within those boundaries, creating a tense allegory about dealing with evil after it has taken everything from you.
The opening sequence of Lifeboat sees the ship go down, and with it the luxury of the options freedom brings. Bits of luggage float in the water, showcasing the various amenities people often surround themselves with — and believe they can’t do without. These conveniences do everything from providing comfort to simply passing the time, tricks that ease the pain and boredom of being, but they also frequently dull the senses. Few are essential, and so those castaways swimming for their lives bypass them without a second thought. Only a wealthy newspaper columnist already safe and dry still clings to her nest of belongings, not oblivious to their ridiculousness in such a primal predicament, but loathe to let go. (However, in a bit of fun punishment, each of her prized possessions are taken from her, one by one, as if the universe — or some director — is sending a message.)
Like life, plots can be frittered away by detail, but by tossing all but the merest cinematic rations overboard, Lifeboat can keep the focus on what much suspense is based around: survival. Stripped of their earthly possessions, the characters are equalized in wealth and status. Thus, they are in a state of pure existence, with only their wits to aid them. Hitchcock surely sympathized, as he aspired to paint a masterpiece while lacking his usual assortment of brushes, tried to figure out how to make ninety minutes on a small boat visually interesting. Still, even in this tiny space, with mere meager storytelling elements at his disposal, the artist’s style looms large.
Without the usual distractions of a normal-sized cast, lavish sets, and location changes, Hitchcock could concentrate on the intrinsic parts of his talent — especially his meticulous nature. He carefully prepared beforehand by using miniatures to “pre-shoot” every scene, then built four different boats for four different purposes: one for rehearsal, one for long shots, one for close-ups, and the last for actually floating in water! He also thoroughly mapped everything out with storyboards, as per usual, but the nature of shooting on the water made naturally some improvisation necessary — some dependence on wits.
Abiding by the less-is-more philosophy, Hitchcock saves visual flourishes for important moments. A close-up of the Nazi’s compass gives the audience its first major plot revelation; we now know something the others don’t. An attractive face coming into frame and focus betrays another character’s true desire (hey, they’re shipwrecked, not dead). A signature push in on a pocket knife over a flame causes shudders — we don’t see its actual use, but we can imagine, and our worst fears are confirmed when an empty boot is tossed our way. Fade outs are common, and scenes take place at all times of day. A storm hits at one point to change things up a bit, keeping us on our toes and making sure we don’t leave the edge of our seats. These are all simple devices, but used masterfully at just the right moments to create unease. By employing such tricks, we are never allowed to settle in, get comfortable, to float. We sense that the longer things go on this way the worse it will get, and we have no way of knowing when or how it will end. All the while the bomb is ticking…
And that’s all it takes. Hitchcock knew this; hell, he made a living off of it. Still, never had he done so much with so little (there isn’t even a musical score, except in the opening and closing credits), and rarely have stories with more complex machinations eclipsed this little film in suspense. Lifeboat reminds us that great creativity can still be displayed on a very small canvas, and that at times the simplest ideas can turn out to be some of the most memorable.
‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’ Celebrates the Ambitious
‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’ explores what happens when the creative can’t create, and delivers an incredible performance from Cate Blanchett.
From The Before Trilogy to Boyhood to Dazed and Confused, Richard Linklater is about as prolific of a filmmaker as they come. In one year he could release an experimental indie film, and the next he’s doing School of Rock. Then there are those films in between that feel like personal stories that Linklater just needs to put his mark on. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is just that type of movie, and falls somewhere between his more Hollywood comedies and something like 2017’s Last Flag Flying. Much in that same vein, Linklater tells a story of creative people driven from their passions for one reason or another, and in the process of doing so brings to life another fantastic performance from Cate Blanchett as a character both lost and unaware that she is lost.
Bernadette Fox (Blanchett) spends her days hiding away from people in her big, always-under-construction house, with her only form of contact being between her, her family, the occasional wealthy parent, and her digital assistant that orders things for her from Amazon at a rapid rate. One might look at her life and see things in shambles, as she always seems anxious, stressed, or simply at the end of her wits. Her husband, Elgie (Billy Crudup), works at Microsoft, and spends more time at work than he does with his family. Meanwhile, their daughter, Bee (Emma Nelson), is preparing to go off to boarding school of her own volition, but wants to go on a trip to Antarctica with her family while they have some time together. No one objects, including Bernadette — a shock to her husband and daughter alike.
What ultimately follows is a deeper exploration of Bernadette’s character, as she tries to wrestle with her anxieties and worries about going on a trip of this magnitude, while also making sure that she doesn’t let her daughter down. Where’d You Go, Bernadette has one large hurdle that audiences will likely have to get over, and that is its affluent main characters. Elgie is a tech wiz, Bernadette is a retired architect, and Bee is going to private school, and somehow the entire family can justify going on a trip to Antarctica with only five weeks notice; they’re the kind of rich that’s absurd, and if this movie was about anything other than creativity and creative types, it would buckle under the knowledge that most problems could be solved by money. In fact, even when a disaster occurs that damages someone’s property, Bernadette throws money at it as a solution. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a movie about rich people that are surrounded by rich people who have normalized being rich people.
Yet once again, even with its characters being who they are, Linklater still mines Maria Semple’s book-of-the-same-name for themes and ideas that can hit hard to the right type of person. As the title (and marketing) suggest, there is a mystery component to Where’d You Go, Bernadette that has other characters exploring Bernadette’s life and why she just up-and-disappears. Surprisingly, however, the movie’s title does not just emphasize a physical disappearance, but also a mental one. Where is the Bernadette that would move the world to create something she so passionately wanted? That question is where Linklater finds something personal to latch on to, and why other creative people will want to explore the quirks of the titular character to find out why she has stopped creating.
Though saccharine to a high degree, the cast and Linklater’s knack for writing engaging conversations and beautiful moments tends to help audiences take in all the sweetness without gagging. It’s a very cute, whimsical film that really leans into it by the time it ends. That tone is mostly what gives the movie its momentum, however, along with some of the neat directorial decisions that help paint a fuller portrait of Bernadette’s family without slowing things to a crawl and sacrificing that momentum. Blanchett provides the right blend of motherly love and manic obsessiveness to carry the entire film on her shoulders, but fortunately Crudup and Nelson give plenty of support, as do some of the briefer appearances from the likes of Judy Greer, Kristen Wiig, and Laurence Fishburne. Moments that are kind of silly sometimes clash with attempts of being more serious in the scene, but it feels like that’s kind of the point to a certain extent. If Crudup feels like he’s playing the scene more seriously, it’s because his character is attempting to be the serious one in an outlandish scenario.
Those scenes that take the absurdity to new heights or suddenly fall into melodramatic territory are also the most memorable moments, because they often have their tone dictated by the perspective. If the perspective is Bernadette’s, it might lean more on the anxious, tense side of things, where it’s unknown how the scene will end or what a character will do. With Bee it’s often a sweet, loving moment. Almost anything involving Elgie tends to involve a sense of urgency, and takes things far more seriously than the others. Where’d You Go, Bernadette holds a lot of power in the way it presents a side of a story, and walks a very fine line on who is right and who is wrong in any given scenario.
As with any Linklater movie that isn’t experimental in its narrative, there will be those who can’t get behind the sweet, caring portrait of a character often at odds with the rest of the world. He’s proven he can do those characters with films like School of Rock and Bernie, but he’s perhaps best known for capturing a feeling or a time and place. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is fairly straightforward, and won’t surprise many going in (it’s unapologetically heartwarming) but provides an illustration of someone who has a lot to offer the world, and the ways we may inadvertently — and unknown to them — stifle their ambitions.
Beautiful ‘Shadow’ Stands Out
As a sort of somber Shakespearean political melodrama, Zhang Yimou’s Shadow sometimes feels a bit too overplotted, with enough self restraint and looks of longing to make it feel claustrophobic, and so many schemes and betrayals that the script almost gets dazed among them. However, as a fantastical period piece — decked out in luscious trappings and painterly compositions, and bolstered by passionate performances and balletic battles with umbrellas made of blades — the experience fares better, resulting in a look at ancient intrigue that always manages to entertain one way or another.
A brief bit of opening text sets the stage for a precarious peace between two lands — the kingdom of Pei, and the kingdom of Yang, the latter of which currently occupies the city of Jing, much to Pei’s dismay. When the renowned Commander of Pei strikes a deal with Yang’s unbeatable warrior king to compete in a one-on-one duel for the fate of the city, he is rebuked by his own ruler, and stripped of his title, demoted to a mere commoner. However, it is secretly revealed that the man acting as the Commander is actually a lookalike named Jingzhou, captured in his youth and bound to serve as ‘shadow’ to the true Commander — who is still recovering from near-mortal wounds from a previous encounter — in case of threats to his life.
This sickly Commander confines himself to an underground cavern beneath the city, and relentlessly trains Jingzhou in order to uphold the subterfuge, even going so far as to give him similar scars. All the while, he plots to retake Jing and assume Pei’s throne, promising to free Jingzhou from his duty upon victory. Of course, this being a royal court, there are any number of Machiavellian conspirators, each setting wheels in motions that surely will collide. This includes a weaselly king, a fiery princess, a sniveling courtier, and the Commander’s wife, Xiao Ai, who plays along with her husband’s maneuvers, but may be falling for his more honorable ‘shadow.’
Those who casually wander into this inter-kingdom squabble will no doubt soon become as lost as these ancient civilizations themselves, but despite the gravity with which the various players detail their plans, the importance of what they’re saying is mostly smoke and mirrors; sure, the duplicity stacked upon duplicity is mildly diverting, but it’s also shallow and devoid of meaningful motivation; so do the myriad of machinations in Shadow really matter? Not when there are plenty of other things to hold one’s interest.
Chiefly among those elements is the sumptuous look of every frame. Working with a relatively small canvas, director Zhang Yimou has carefully composed grandiose images filled with nuanced staging, deliberate movement, and indelibly rich texture. His choices give otherwise modest engagements an epic feel, and not just in moments where swords are flashed. Conversations become mini-wars in themselves, as he zeroes his camera in on the meticulous exchanges between the main players of his power game, their precisely worded responses and subtle facial expressions acting out aggressive thrusts and parries in word form, often cutting just as deep as any knife.
One need not understand the spoken particulars to get the general idea, and Shadow actually communicates better through the clarity of its visuals. Each guarded step or confident tilt of the head feels deliberately choreographed, as if part of deadly dance. And instead of overloading the screen with period detail, sets are clean, populated only with objects of significance. This laser focus allows for minute aspects that otherwise may have been overlooked in clutter to factor prominently, especially when Zhang Yimou holds his shots so patiently.
And it must have easy for him to do so with a cast as magnetic as this. Deng Chao does double duty as the Commander and Jingzhou, but creates characters so disparate that you’d be forgiven for thinking they bear no resemblance whatsoever. He manages bitter and reptilian just as easy as dutiful and courageous, showing how life has affected these two men, tied together by a facade, in vastly different ways. Sun Li as Xiao Ai nobly hides her torn affections behind expressive eyes that should reveal more than they do; everyone is playing the game. Zheng Kai and Guan Xiaotong round things out nicely as the deceitful king and his more straightforward, honest sister, who challenges any threats to honor.
They are eminently watchable, completely up to the task of holding down the fort even when besieged by layers of backstabbing that would require a more talented contortionist than the script is capable of. That’s Shadow itself; from one-on-one political maneuvers to an entertainingly inventive battle involving hundreds, there is almost always something splendid to soak in, even if it makes your head spin.
Editor’s Note: This review was originally published on July 25th as part of our Fantasia Film Festival coverage. Shadow is now available in Canada on Digital, DVD, and Blu-ray.
‘Incident In A Ghostland ‘— Pascal Laugier Revisits the Genre that Made Him Famous
‘Martyrs’ director Pascal Laugier takes another stab at the horror genre.
Writer-director Pascal Laugier is well-known for his heady 2008 breakout French thriller Martyrs which is regarded by many as one of the most disturbing horror films ever made and took the torture porn genre to untold levels of nastiness. While not his best film (that honor goes to Brotherhood of the Wolf), Martyrs stands as an extreme example of just how twisted French new wave horror films can be.
In 2012 he directed his first English-language feature, The Tall Man, a slow atmospheric thriller about a dying mining town where children begin vanishing without a trace. Despite the star power of Jessica Biel, The Tall Man was both a critical and commercial bomb, and not necessarily what fans of Laugier’s first film were expecting. His latest (and second English-language offering) revisits the grisly torture-porn genre that made him famous but the question going in was, is it any good?
Following in the footsteps of French auteurs Alexandre Aja (High Tension) and Alexandre Bustillo (Inside), Incident In A Ghostland begins as your typical home-invasion thriller and follows single mother Pauline Keller (French Canadian pop star Mylene Farmer) and her two teenage daughters Beth (Emilia Jones) and Vera (Taylor Hickson) who relocate to their new home. En route, the trio is briefly terrorized by a speeding ice cream truck before noticing a local headline about a series of brutal crimes sweeping the area. The Kellers haven’t even had a chance to settle in yet and already things aren’t looking too good. Anyone who’s seen at least one horror movie knows what happens next. What follows is a no-holds-barred assault that will leave the audience emotionally and psychologically scarred.
What makes Incident In A Ghostland different than the countless other home invasion thrillers that came before, is that the raid on their house takes up only the first twenty minutes of the film. After managing to survive the attack, we fast forward some years and discover a grown-up Beth (Crystal Reed) has written a memoir of her family’s traumatic experience that has made her a famous horror novelist. Her sister Vera (Anastasia Phillips) on the other hand, isn’t doing so well; suffering from PTSD and reliving that horrible night over and over. It’s here that my plot summary must end in order to avoid spoiling the film’s many twists and turns— but to sum it up, the remainder of the running time jumps between past and present, dream and reality, nightmares and hallucinations and dreams within dreams all while keeping the audience guessing as to what is real and what is in Beth’s imagination.
Like the director’s gory debut, Incident In A Ghostland is light on plot (and even lighter on character development) but extremely heavy on the torture inflicted on the young women who are subjected to unspeakable acts of physical, sexual and mental abuse, both real and imaginary. Like Martyrs, Ghostland dwells on the terror our protagonists experience with the camera constantly closing in on tight shots of their wounds, bruises, and screams as they are kicked, punched, choked, chained and dragged around the house. Needless to say, it’s rather painful to sit through, with each scene stretched out for maximum discomfort. Incident In A Ghostland is the sort of movie in which roughly half the running time consists of women screaming in pain while the other half will have you scratching your head trying to make sense of it all. It’s especially unsettling as Laugier subjects Beth and Vera to acts of pedophilic sadism, and later learning that the then-19-year-old actress Taylor Hickson reportedly sued the production company for injuries suffered on the set. Meanwhile, fans of Farmer may be appalled to watch the French-Canadian idol beaten to a bloody pulp while stabbed repeatedly— and if you have a fear of dolls, I recommend you stay as far away from Ghostland as it features an abundance of creepy doll imagery.
While Pascal Laugier’s most recent offering isn’t as depraved as Martyrs, it’s still an intentionally unpleasant nightmare to watch unfold and while I admire the craft that went into making it, I can’t say I enjoyed my time spent watching it. But it is a well-made film featuring stunning cinematography from Danny Nowak (who provides the movie with a sheen polish) and great set design by Gordon Wilding and his collaborators who do a marvelous job in bringing the house to life (so to speak) and making it, as creepy as the villains played by Kevin Power and Rob Archer.
I’ve noticed a few critics online comparing Incident In A Ghostland to the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre which in my opinion, is heresy. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remains to this day a motion picture of raw, uncompromising intensity, a punishing assault on the senses via some of the most extended scenes of absolute sustained frenzy ever captured on celluloid. Incident In A Ghostland brings nothing new to the genre and is just another example of a movie that relies on plot twists and extreme violence to get a rise out of the audience. Whereas Marilyn Burns’ doomed screams will forever be etched in your memory, the hundreds and hundreds of screams heard in Ghostland will soon be forgotten. Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre undoubtedly ranks as the best horror film of all time and also boasts one of the most unforgettable abrupt endings ever. I’ve already forgotten how Ghostland ends.
Incident In A Ghostland is a Shudder exclusive. For more info, visit their website.
- Ricky D
‘Nekrotronic’ Sells its Soul to Monica Bellucci
Some movies are just so hard to grasp that trying to do so would be futile. In some instances, that can be used to a film’s advantage, such as Kiah Roache-Turner’s 2014 debut, Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead, in which explanations didn’t really matter. Understanding what was happening in that film wasn’t the point; it was just about accepting the ride. That’s the same strategy employed in the director’s 2018 follow-up, Nekrotronic, a supernatural social media haunt that opts for the same deprivation of logic for the sake of a fun B-movie romp.
Co-written with his brother, Tristan, the script takes a kitchen-sink approach to the insane story of demons possessing humans through social media. As the eternal fight between Nekromancers and demons rages on, they’ve become locked in a new type of cyber warfare. An app being designed by a soulless corporation of human husks is overseen by the Queen of the Underworld herself (played by the always incredible Monica Bellucci), and acts a lot like Pokemon Go — but as users find ghosts instead of Pokemon, they unknowingly give their souls to the underworld. And so, the fate of all mankind now rests on the shoulders of a sanitation worker (Ben O’Toole) and his best friend (Epine Bob Savea).
Nekrotronic is about kicking ass and filling the screen with as much gore and high-tech weaponry as possible.
This Ozploitation film tries really hard to give explanations to virtually everything it introduces, and that’s an admirable effort in a story that very clearly doesn’t care that much. It’s Ghostbusters with a little bit of They Live, and an aesthetic that feels like the video game Doom more than any movie in recent memory. There are 3D-printing demon souls and giant lasers, wraiths, and ghosts that travel through the internet like it’s a series of tubes, and a refusal to stop introducing new conceits. That Nekrotronic has logic presented at all is like if the Alien movies tried to give motivation for the xenomorph attacking its prey — endearing to attempt, but so very unnecessary.
That is the major issue that plagues Nekrotronic. The Roache-Turner brothers want to do everything, but by doing everything it’s easy to lose focus on the central conceit — which is hard to pinpoint, because there are so many small emotional beats that are all treated like huge deals at various times. There’s not even really much in the form of a social commentary on our reliance with social media and technology; Nekromancers once put demon souls into the internet as a form of containment, and then didn’t realize that the Queen of Hell would discover a way to use the internet to release the demons. That’s a neat genre explanation that could be mined for more of a critique on apps that data mine and do more harm than we really realize, but unfortunately, the movie only passively mentions this point, then walks away from it immediately.
Instead, Nekrotronic is about kicking ass and filling the screen with as much gore and high-tech weaponry as possible. The cyber-horror aesthetic lends itself really well to the narrative; while it very much looks like a B-movie, it looks like a B-movie with a budget. The visuals are also very vibrant and filled with more colour than Wyrmwood, which is justification for a more riotous feeling — and the really bad jokes support that spirit.
But the ultimate reason to sit through this very boring, exhaustive assault on the senses is for Monica Bellucci. She chews scenery, whether it’s for the benefit of comedy or horror; no one else comes close. If Nekrotronic did anything really right, it was casting Bellucci as a demon from Hell that says phrases like “No more Mrs. Nice Guy” as she tries to come off motherly, seductive, and terrifying at the same time. If there’s one thing to take away from this film, it’s that the Roache-Turner brothers are hellbent on telling entertaining stories — they just missed the bar with this demonic affair.
Editor’s note: This review was originally published on September 8, 2018 as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.
‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ and the Secret Power of Storytelling
‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ sets about exploring the magical past of Hollywood, but it unearths some haunting memories as well.
*Warning: The following article contains major spoilers
The Manson family murders account for one of the most notorious massacres in the history of the United States. Taking place at 10500 Cielo Drive in the Hollywood hills of Los Angeles, the victims were five adults and one unborn child, that of actress Sharon Tate. The notoriously grim crime scene photos speak for themselves, and the boogie man nature of a twisted mind like Charles Manson remains a haunting memory over 50 years later. It is with this chilling story that we enter the world of Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
It’s about a Hollywood we may have heard of, but that most of us — including Tarantino himself — would never have had the chance to see for ourselves. This is a place where westerns are some of television’s most popular shows, actors smoke and drink on set, and legends like Bruce Lee and Steve McQueen just pop up as if they were regular folks like you or I. It’s a fantasy land in this way, and it’s clear that this is part of the appeal for Tarantino.
With that in mind, it’s not necessarily a huge surprise that Tarantino decided to right the wrongs of a tragedy that still lingers in the memories of old Hollywood like a nasty bedtime story. The Manson murders are infamous in their carnage, and cut down in the prime of her life, actress Sharon Tate remains martyr-like in her tragic fate. Herein lies the power of film, and storytelling in general: the power to create a better world — in this case, one where Tate is allowed to live on and have a happy life as a wife and mother. When conceived this way, the title “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” takes on a different meaning; this film is very literally a fairy tale.
Portrayed by the increasingly impressive Margot Robbie, Sharon Tate appears in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as a starry-eyed optimist and maybe just a bit of a ditz, but a lovable ditz. When people look at her and talk about her at Hollywood parties, it isn’t hard to see why; she has an infectious, magical aura about her, and she seems to be possibility itself in the form of a beautiful, blonde bombshell. Take a scene where she watches the audience of a theater laugh as they enjoy her performance in the film Wrecking Crew: the joy she feels in being a fly on the wall, watching her own movie with the audience, makes her instantly relatable, and simultaneously makes us dread her eventual fate.
This is by design. Tarantino wants us to feel this encroaching sense of dread as he unfolds this tale of old Hollywood, and that’s why scenes of actors and stuntmen waxing nostalgic and hobnobbing with the stars are punctuated with chilling little snippets of the Manson family. Each scene of this kind seems to burn and broil with a pungent malice that, though palpable, never quite boils over into outright violence and bloodshed. It makes us dread the coming murders we are expecting all the more.
However, things take a sudden turn when the Manson family finds themselves accosted by one very drunk Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) as they prowl the streets of Hollywood for the Polanski/Tate residence. This chance encounter sparks a creative notion in one of the Manson members: Dalton, a star of many violent TV shows and films, ought to be their first victim. The poetry of it, they decide, will be in enacting the violence of entertainment on those who peddle it. So, their target changes from 10500 Cielo Drive to the house next door. This is where the fun comes in.
For much of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a sort of ‘Chekhov’s acid-soaked cigarette’ floats around the film. We see it time and time again, being bought, stored, and considered by Dalton’s stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). As Dalton and Booth prepare to end their partnership for good, Booth decides to smoke the acid cigarette at last and see where the night takes him. A short time later, the Mansons burst into the home and Booth, fueled by his acid cigarette, positively ruins them. There are vicious dog attacks, genital traumas, egregious face-smashings, and even a fiery finale courtesy of Rick’s flamethrower.
The violence of this sequence cannot be overstated. It’s nasty, brutal stuff. In a juxtaposition that calls to mind the historical revisionism of Inglourious Basterds — where we spend the majority of the movie thinking the assassination attempt on Hitler couldn’t possibly succeed, and when it does we are overjoyed — we actually relish the horror of the Manson family’s fate. Not because we suddenly believe that reality has changed, but because the power of film — and storytelling in general — has allowed us to live in a better world for a few moments.
This is precisely the appeal of the surprise climax of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. We’d love to live in a world where a charismatic psychopath who carved a swastika into his forehead is allowed to dwindle away forgotten, and a rising star is allowed to continue her ascension unhampered. We love seeing the Manson family dispatched with such terrifying ease by the charming Booth and the troubled Dalton, because it’s the opposite of the unseemly fate we had been dreading over the films near three-hour runtime.
Tarantino, of course, expects us to feel this way, which is why he indulges us in the scene for so long. If Booth had just quickly taken out the Mansons with a few swift moves, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy their punishment. If there’s even a shred of doubt of QT’s intent, the appearance of the flamethrower (conveniently stored in Rick’s shed) puts all of that to rest in a fiery finale that’s too funny to be properly grim.
In the end, this is the secret power of storytelling, and it’s one that is rarely used — the power to right the wrongs of history, to indulge the audience in their fantasy of a better reality, and to allow us the brief privilege of residing there. The final moments, as Dalton is being invited into the Tate residence, is when we, the audience, must leave this reality. It’s bittersweet, as we must return to a world where Sharon and her friends were violently murdered 50 years ago, but there is still the beauty of being able to share a world where the horrors of the Manson family were halted in their tracks, before they could descend into their infamous depravity.
Goomba Stomp is the joint effort of a team of like-minded writers from across the globe. We provide smart readers with sharp, entertaining writing on a wide range of topics in pop culture, offering an escape from the usual hype and gossip. We are currently looking for Film, TV, Anime and Comic writers.
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