In this essay on Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, Anna Swanson explores a particular scene involving Brad Pitt’s character, Cliff Booth, and spoilers are included.
The boat rocks, another beer is opened, a body aligns with the path of a harpoon, and then… a cutaway. A mystery is left unsolved and becomes an invitation for speculation.
This scene has been at the center of an impassioned debate this year and has left fans of Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood without an answer. Quentin Tarantino‘s latest follows the exploits of actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as they navigate the changing cultural landscape of Hollywood in 1969. The latter of the duo is a laidback dog dad whose third-act heroics make him one of the most beloved characters in the films of 2019.
But before that happens, Tarantino drops an unexpected bomb that recontextualizes our perception of the character: Cliff may or may not have killed his wife in cold blood and gotten away with it.
It’s an alarming tidbit of information, and though this revelation is only explicitly mentioned a handful of times and only as part of one sequence, Tarantino packs a hell of a lot of contradictory ideas into these brief mentions of the incident in question. This is a difficult topic to parse through, but doing so reveals that part of the film’s brilliance is in how much of a challenge it is to come away with a single interpretation of a minor detail.
This is a rich film that invites repeated viewings for so many reasons, one of them being the incentive to figure out why this incident is part of the plot, what it means, and how we should feel about Cliff. On my part, somewhere around my fourth viewing, I found myself intrigued by the layers of narrative that overlap during this scene, so let’s start by breaking that down.
On the second of the three days that comprise the film, Cliff is told that he can’t do stunts for Rick’s show because the stunt coordinator is friends with someone named Randy. While fixing Rick’s roof antenna, Cliff remembers this and a flashback begins to explain why Randy and Cliff are not chummy.
In this flashback, we see that in (most likely) 1967, Rick was filming an episode of The Green Hornet and Randy, played by Kurt Russell, is in charge of stunts. While Cliff waits outside Rick’s trailer, Rick asks Randy to hire Cliff for the day as his double rather than use the regular stuntmen on set. Randy explains that he doesn’t dig Cliff because he killed his wife. At this point, another flashback — or maybe not a flashback, more on this later — begins and we see Cliff, drunk, on a rocky boat with a nagging wife, Billie (Rebecca Gayheart). As she taunts him, Tarantino frames the scene so we can’t help but notice the fishing harpoon in Cliff’s hand being angled so as to perfectly align with Billie. We can imagine what happens next.
And indeed, we’re forced to imagine what happens next because Tarantino doesn’t show what happens. But this moment colors the rest of the film.
Fans of Tarantino (or anyone who’s seen one of his films before) will know that the decision to not show Billie’s death is undoubtedly deliberate considering he is not a filmmaker who has any qualms about putting brutal violence on screen. Fans will also notice some similarities to a pivotal moment in Pulp Fiction when Vincent Vega (John Travolta) carelessly but absentmindedly holds his gun so it aligns with Marvin’s (Phil LaMarr) face. Maybe the car hits a bump or maybe Vincent leans just a hair too strong on the trigger, but either way, the gun goes off. Vincent never intended to shoot him, but it happens.
Considering Tarantino’s penchant for world-building and referencing his own work, it can’t be a coincidence that in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood we see a potential resurrection of the “absentmindedly pointing a gun at someone and killing them when it accidentally fires” trope. Something like this happening is a stretch, but in Tarantino’s world, stranger things have happened. Additionally, later in the flashback, Cliff makes it clear that he is familiar with the definition of manslaughter: accidentally killing someone. So, maybe that’s the answer. Maybe Cliff is an innocent man who had bad luck and accidentally killed his wife in circumstances that are nearly impossible to believe.
Maybe not. The fact that Tarantino doesn’t show the death happening indicates he wants this to be left open, or at least for the search for an answer to not end there. Another possibility is the interpretation many people had: Cliff killed her in cold blood and planned it so there was just enough plausible deniability to let him get away with it.
Which interpretation a person takes away allows them to have wildly different readings of the film and of what Tarantino might be trying to say about violence. Even within these two possibilities, there are so many more factors at play than just an Option A and an Option B. But, this is a good place to start.
One question we may want to ask ourselves regarding the boat scene is whose perspective are we seeing? We know that The Green Hornet set sequence is a flashback triggered by Cliff’s memory, but he’s not in the trailer when Randy and Rick discuss him. Is the flashback within a flashback an omniscient perspective? This could be Tarantino showing us an unbiased fact of what happened in the seconds before Billie’s death.
Another possibility is that it is Randy’s imagining of what transpired. He heard accounts of what went down and pieced together a scenario from speculation. In that case, can it be trusted? Is that even how Billie died? If we assume Cliff’s guilt based on Randy’s imagining of the situation that means we’re taking a third- (or fourth-, fifth-, sixth-, etc.) hand account as gospel.
A similar but slightly different reading is that, because the larger sequence is Cliff’s memory but he can’t know how the conversation happened in the trailer, Cliff is imagining the reasons why Randy doesn’t want to hire him, and then imagining how Randy thinks the boat incident went down. If Cliff is innocent, if he’s someone who’s been damned by conjecture, he’s surely conscious of how people might perceive him and aware that this is how he’s judged when his back is turned.
I don’t present this reading as the answer, but rather as one interpretation. It’s an interpretation I arrived at after thinking about it quite a bit, but not one that I think is totally unfounded. Cliff being an innocent man makes him easier to like, but this raises some genuinely troubling questions concerning what this says about blame and culpability.
In February 2018 — four months before Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood started filming — Uma Thurman revealed that while filming Kill Bill, she felt coerced into performing a dangerous stunt that injured her and that afterward, producers, including Harvey Weinstein, covered it up.
On one hand, Thurman revealing this appalling information has no direct connection to Tarantino’s latest film. However, thinking about the two together did make me realize that perhaps casting Thurman’s daughter, Maya Hawke, as the Manson Family member who flees before breaking in and is therefore spared from violence is a gesture towards the actress from the filmmaker. It’s a small but perhaps not insignificant act of mercy to prevent Thurman’s daughter from being harmed on screen, even if just in a fictional context.
On the other hand, the fact that the boat scene references his prior work seems to invite an understanding of how this film fits into Tarantino’s career and how his prior actions can inform it.
Comparing these two things makes for a troubling takeaway from the film. That Tarantino may be suggesting an innocent man’s life can be ruined by unfortunate circumstances beyond his control is at once plausible and deeply upsetting. If Tarantino is suggesting that a good person can suffer because they’re unable to shake the accusations that were never proved in court, what does he want us to think about the current climate in Hollywood?
It’s impossible to ignore the fact that so many women have come forward with accusations against powerful men, including Tarantino’s own longtime producer, who Thurman holds responsible and who Tarantino admits he could have done more to stop.
The other possibility is that the boat scene is not a speculative imagining but a more truthful representation and that Cliff is actually guilty. In that case, if this scene isn’t so much an argument for how an innocent man can be wrongly tried by public opinion, it’s a depiction of the extent to which someone can literally get away with murder. Cliff’s only punishment is some missed job opportunities and whispers behind his back.
A comparison that comes to mind is Lars von Trier‘s The House That Jack Built, particularly the idea the filmmaker puts forward that his serial killer character, Jack (Matt Dillon), is an analogous representation of what the filmmaker has been able to get away with under the guise of art. Is this gloating or confessing? How do we negotiate these issues the film raises but doesn’t answer?
One of the other details of this scene is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it line from Billie. While complaining about Cliff, she mentions that her sister, Natalie, is no fan of the stuntman. Tarantino is nothing if not precise, meaning the name Natalie is no accident when used in the context of a woman suspiciously dying on a boat.
In 1981, actress Natalie Wood drowned under mysterious circumstances while on a boat with her husband, Robert Wagner, and Christopher Walken, who was co-starring in a film with Natalie at the time. The assertion that her death was accidental has always been met with raised eyebrows, and the idea that Wagner is responsible is one of the more common beliefs, though no charges have been filed and no concrete evidence has been presented.
There are a number of ways to interpret this reference. For starters, this could be Tarantino’s way of saying that Wagner did it. Just like Cliff did it. Just like so many others have done it and gotten away with little to no repercussions. As much as it can be tempting to bring up Tarantino’s history with Thurman and Weinstein to wonder if he wants us to understand Cliff as innocent, Tarantino’s own admission that, regarding Weinstein’s crimes, he “knew enough to do more” than he did is equally relevant here. Perhaps this character, this scene, and the fact that it makes us uncomfortable are intended to force audiences to recognize that powerful men get away with victimizing women all the time and to question how our adoration or admiration of them placate us.
Cliff is easy to like. Pitt’s performance is effortless and relaxed, he has perfect comedic timing, looks damn good with his shirt off, and it’s impossible to not fall in love with Cliff’s dog. He also steps in as a surprising savior in the third act, protecting Rick, Rick’s wife, and, ultimately, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and the other residents of 10050 Cielo Drive. Does all of this make it ok that he killed his wife? Are we supposed to forgive one death he caused because of the lives he saved?
Tarantino is not one to make his ideas especially palatable; he has no problem with graphic violence, uncomfortable language, and contentious themes. It’s not a surprise that he might ask us to hold our contradictory feelings about Cliff as a murderer and a savior at the same time or that he might use this character to present us with more questions than answers.
Returning to the Natalie Wood reference, the other interpretation is that this is less about slyly indicating that Cliff is guilty and more about bringing this scene into a conversation about Hollywood mythmaking. The title of the movie imagines the industry as a kind of fairytale, and thanks to Tarantino’s penchant for revising history, the characters once doomed to die tragically are afforded a happy ending.
While Tarantino’s film is removed from the confines of the reality we know, it’s also a love letter to an era that came to pass. The Hollywood of old that the filmmaker has such a love for is immortalized and mythologized in his depictions of 1969. In the real world, Wagner’s guilt — and the guilt of so many others — has never been proven but the legends told about them persist regardless. Tragically, many know about Wood primarily because of the controversial circumstances of her death and not because of her life or work, much like Sharon Tate.
In Tarantino’s world, the rumors around Cliff follow him everywhere through whisperings and speculation. Whether he is guilty or innocent is never given attention by Tarantino because it’s never really given attention by the characters. Randy believes what he believes and Rick believes what he believes. We can believe Cliff is innocent or we can believe he’s guilty. We can also question how either idea relates to accountability, redemption, Tarantino’s reflections on his career, and his perspective on the crimes of those in the film industry.
All of this is on the table, and when we abandon the notion that we can solve the mystery, we can see what can be gained from understanding the scope of the legend. The myths last, while the truth is lost in an ocean vaster than the rolling neon streets of the Hollywood of yore.