How ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ Explains Tarantino’s Cinematic Universe

It's the most important movie in the TCU.

There’s an aesthetic that ties all of Quentin Tarantino’s movies together (bright colors, violence, feet), but there’s also a clear through-line tying his nine films into a single shared universe that’s just as interconnected as Marvel’s 23-movie superhero saga. The Tarantino Cinematic Universe has long existed as more of a fan theory than fact, but Once Upon a Time in Hollywood serves as a lynchpin connecting all nine Tarantino movies by bridging a major gap in the “TCU.”

Explaining the Tarantino Cinematic Universe

Tarantino fans often point to small connections between his movies, from shared last names to inter-movie foreshadowing, but the biggest clue has always been Red Apple Cigarettes. The fictional tobacco brand appears in everything from Kill Bill to Django Unchained. It even turns up in the post-credits scene from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, cementing the new movie within Tarantino’s shared universe.

Red Apple Cigarettes in 'Kill Bill'


Red Apple Cigarettes in 'Pulp Fiction'


Red Apple Cigarettes in 'The Hateful Eight'

The Weinstein Company

But it’s more than just a series of Easter eggs. In an interview with Australian news show The Project, Tarantino explained how his cinematic universe connects by separating his films into two distinct groups: 1) An alternate reality where history’s worst tragedies are often avoided through ultra-violence and 2) The ultra-violent movies the people in that universe go to see in theaters.

Here’s the TCU, explained in the director’s own words:

There’s the realer than real universe, alright, and all the characters inhabit that one. But then there’s this movie universe. And so From Dusk Till Dawn, Kill Bill, they all take place in this special movie universe. So basically when the characters of Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, when they go to the movies, Kill Bill is what they go to see. From Dusk Till Dawn is what they see.

Based on this quote, fans have speculated that the violent way Hitler dies in Inglorious Basterds or Jamie Fox’s vengeance-fueled murder spree across the Antebellum south in Django Unchained could have altered the way society thinks about violence, which explains how a movie like Kill Bill exists as standard popcorn cinema in the Tarantino Cinematic Universe.

You can even see this dynamic between the two halves of the TCU play out within Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Before the movie starts, Leonardo DiCaprio’s aging movie star, Rick Dalton, starred in a Nazi-killing action film titled The 14 Fists of McCluskey in which he torches a group of Nazi commanders with a flamethrower. Where would the director of this in-universe movie get an idea like that? Maybe because in his reality, Hitler was similarly gunned down by an entire team of Jewish American soldiers a couple of decades earlier.

'Inglorious Basterds'

Universal Pictures

Rick Dalton in 'The 14 Fists of McCluskey'


Why There’s No Kill Bill Without Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Warning: Spoilers for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood below.

But how do you get from The 14 Fists of McCluskey to Kill Bill? The answer lies at the very end of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood when Tarantino changes the course of history yet again by having Brad Pitt’s character (stuntman Cliff Booth) stop a trio of Charlie Manson cultists from killing rising Hollywood star Sharon Tate (played by Margot Robbie).

In real life, Tate was brutally murdered in August 1969, marking a turning point in Hollywood as the industry contracted in self-defense and the city became a little less friendly. The media took to victim blaming, and in her 1979 book of essays, Joan Didion wrote, “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969.”

Margot Robbie, as "Sharon Tate," in 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.'

Sony Pictures

But in the Tarantino Cinematic Universe, none of that happened. By undoing one of the darkest chapters of Hollywood history with one of the most violent scenes in Tarantino’s entire filmography, the director’s ninth film puts in motion the one key event that leads to the in-universe creation of movies like Kill Bill.

Moments after burning a Manson follower to a crisp with his flamethrower, Rick Dalton finally gets his break by striking up a new friendship with his neighbors, including Roman Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ends there, but the implication is that Dalton will go on to star in future Polanski films inspired by the gory fight scene at the end of this story. The entertainment industry in Tarantino’s “realer than real” universe takes a sharp turn in 1969, leading to the kind of ultra-violence seen in Kill Bill.

In other words: Without Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s ending there is no Kill Bill.

As one of the Manson Family members points out near the end of the movie, anyone who grew up watching television grew up watching murder thanks to violent westerns and crime shows like Rick Dalton’s Bounty Law. But anyone who grew up in Rick Dalton’s Hollywood after the events of Once Upon a Time grew up in a world where over the top, gory violent cinema was the norm. That’s the world where Tarantino’s “special movie universe” take place, and now, we finally know why.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is in theaters now.

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