Face Off: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) and Mindhunter (2019)

Each Motion State Face Off pits two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.

The second season of Netflix’s Mindhunter is the best single season of television the streaming giant has ever produced. I’d entertain an argument for the best series overall being something else — Stranger Things, Narcos — though with a five-season plan Mindhunter might someday change that. And the show’s not without problems, of course. Still, pound-for-pound, on a season-by-season basis, the second chunk of the David Fincher-led serial killer show is the most finely-tuned and commanding character study you’re going to find. Fincher’s cold camera has never been more sinister than in the first three episodes of this season, and that mood is carried throughout. It’s almost a disappointment when a larger-than-life figure like Charles Manson, babbling and bombastic, intrudes on the otherwise grim and brooding proceedings.

Much of what makes the show so compelling, of course, is that the verifiable truth — some would call it “historical accuracy” — is often one and the same with the most disturbing shit ever undertaken by a multiple murderer in America. Mindhunter makes plenty of stuff up, with Holden Ford, Bill Tench and Wendy Carr serving as fictional versions of actual investigators; a huge subplot of the second season involving Tench’s son was (likely) pulled from an actual San Francisco case in 1971, but didn’t have anything to do with the real people on which the show is based. Yet the depictions of the killers and their crimes are horrifyingly accurate, and the sadistic evil you really wish was fabricated is often the tragic truth.

That alone would make for an interesting side-by-side with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the Tarantino flick that preceded season two of Mindhunter in release by only a month or so. Pepper in the fact that both extensively address the Manson Family murders of 1969, that the same actor (Damon Herriman) plays Charles Manson in both, and that each offers a completely opposing approach to the truth of murder and the story of murder…I’d say you can’t make this shit up, but I suppose part of the point is that, hey, apparently you can.

In pure Tarantino fashion, Hollywood marches toward the Manson murder on Cielo Drive with a foreboding kind of joy. We all know what’s coming. Scenes of Sharon Tate laughing along with a movie she’s starring in play with a sad edge, knowing that Tex Watson will murder her at the behest of Manson by film’s end. Scenes of Tex and Co. marching up Cielo Drive, guns in hand, soundtrack blasting, seem to take forever. And then, impossibly, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio use acid, dog food and a flamethrower to prevent the most gruesome event in Hollywood’s history, sending the doomed truth of Hollywood off with a frickin’ happy ending.

Tarantino’s play here, I think, is to take back the fame that Manson stole from Tate and restore it to its rightful owner. It’s telling that Charles Manson only appears in a single scene, scoping out the houses at the end of Cielo, and then disappears for the remainder of the film. In describing the film’s synopsis prior to release, you can bet the word “Manson” was used more often than the word “Tate”. But Hollywood‘s not about Manson, and by rewriting history Tarantino walks a fine line between respecting the truth of a woman who was brutally murdered and finally giving her the story she had rightfully earned.

Tex Watson (c.1969), Sharon Tate’s actual killer; Austin Butler, who portrayed Watson in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Christopher Backus as Watson (c. 1981) in Mindhunter

The question, of course, is whether the significance of the story outweighs the significance of the truth. Might Tarantino’s artful dodge actually disrespect Sharon Tate in a way? It’s an especially fair question in light of Mindhunter‘s treatment of the same material, despite the latter series being set more than a decade after the Cielo murders. Back in the first season, Tench comes around to the prospect of meeting killers face-to-face with a reluctant realization: “even if it makes my stomach turn, this is important work.” That’s perhaps a perfect distillation of Mindhunter‘s drive, which eschews violence and gore and instead simply unsettles with the blunt truth.

Which is not to say that Manson’s depiction in Mindhunter forces the story to be about him; if anything, the man himself is reduced to a loon while his drive for control is asserted as the underlying force behind Helter Skelter. Holden asks Tex Watson if he would have killed without Manson telling him to do so, and Watson’s answer matters less than Holden’s question. Mindhunter sticks to the facts and ends up being a show about moral humans futilely seeking to control killers who in turn kill in order to feel some level of control, and it’s fittingly spearheaded by a director (Fincher) who has one of the most controlled aesthetics in modern American cinema. Meanwhile Once Upon a Time in Hollywood paradoxically awards control of the largely-fictional narrative to the real-life “protagonists” of a terrible true story, gleefully twisted by a director (Tarantino) who’s given us almost exclusively out-of-control joyrides on celluloid.

There’s a place for both Hollywood and Mindhunter, of course, and the fact that each can play on opposite ends of the True Crime spectrum with even moderate success serves as a powerful statement in and of itself. The Mindhunter end includes stuff like Foxcatcher, a film that attempts (and sort of fails on repeat viewing) to mimic Fincher’s unadorned style to deliver an ice-cold retelling of a strange murder. The Hollywood end is more Scorsese’s territory, with Goodfellas as the prime example of true-crime-turned-flashy-entertainment. All of this art is inescapably impacted by real life, but both Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Mindhunter find unique ways for art to fight back.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)
Mindhunter — Netflix

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