Towards the middle of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Quentin Tarantino casually reveals his intentions in a sequence involving an audacious clash of history and fiction. Already he has established the key relationship between an actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), but not until there is a western-style standoff with members of the Manson family do we sense the gravitas of their roles; just as Cliff is the one exposed to all the danger on the set, so does he carry that burden off-screen, where his friend and partner is usually sulking in self-pity. This, we soon realize, is the destiny that will foreshadow how the movie must play out: with the stunt man ready to face off against a violent threat emerging in the shadows while the other, more aloof personality, is left to remain mostly ambivalent in the backdrop. Is Tarantino saying something about his own ideals in these characters, who are like two halves of a fully contained behavioral system? Is his Rick Dalton, a neurotic and insecure man reflecting on the monotonous tide of his career, an avatar that he projects all his fears onto, while Cliff symbolizes the more youthful scope of his own chutzpah? Theirs is a union necessary to a film that would otherwise collapse without it; they bring guidance and perspective to an atmosphere that is essentially a eulogy to the old ways of Hollywood.
A great evil lurks in the fields of Gatlin, known only to a select few who have been ensnared by its mental claws. All those who do not accept it – mostly adults – are destined to become its famous first victims, as shown in an early sequence where the young narrator watches as rows of adolescents slaughter them at a local diner. Few beyond the town’s borders know of what transpired there, but a token mechanic living on the outskirts provides all the perfunctory warnings to those passing through. “Well, folks in Gatlin’s got a religion,” he tells a couple searching for a phone. “They don’t like outsiders.” And so the stage is set for the two oblivious leads to get lost on the road, wander into the abandoned town square and begin a bloody face-off with kids who otherwise would be carried off to youth detention centers in any normal reality. Piece all these elements together and you have the default premise for countless teenage splatter films; add in a few extra touches like excess violence with farm weapons, bad child actors mugging for screen time and a preacher who sounds like he is choking out his ponderous sermons, and what you have is the greater offense of “Children of the Corn.”