Plot points for both the film and the novelization of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood are discussed below, so consider yourself warned for spoilers.
Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is one of the last truly great movies I saw in theaters, and that’s one of the reasons it has stuck with me. But another reason the film has stuck with me is because it, like many of Tarantino’s films, revels in a sort of ambiguity that undoubtedly makes audiences uncomfortable.
In the case of this film in particular, that ambiguity revolves around stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) and the question of whether or not he murdered his wife, as everyone around him kind of assumes he did. I discussed this at length in a Letterboxd review so I won’t belabor the point here, but the film does two things: It leaves ambiguous whether Cliff shot his wife with a harpoon gun intentionally or accidentally, and it forces us to ask how much it matters either way given that he is, after all, the guy who killed the Manson Family killers in a glorious burst of ultraviolence.
The ambiguity gives us a way out of this conversation, allowing us to say that the truth is unknowable, the narrators all unreliable, so who can say? If we want, we don’t really need to confront the idea that bad men can be not only capable of doing good things, but necessary for good things to be done. I do not think this was Tarantino’s intention, but the ambiguity is a bit of a dodge.
Well the novel eliminates that dodge entirely. In the novelization of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, Cliff is a stone-cold killer many times over.
Not just in the jungles of the Philippines, where he helped organize a prison break with his band of “Filipino guerilla brothers” that culminates in the beheading of numerous Japanese soldiers, an activity that anyone familiar with Japan’s extensive history of war crimes during World War II might approve of. Not just when he kills a pair of mobsters threatening a special lady friend, another justified act of violence. And not just when Cliff kills a fellow stuntman who wants to put his beloved pit bull Brandy into a fight he knows the dog will lose, which we can all get behind because we all love dogs.
It’s when we learn, for certain, that Cliff did in fact intentionally murder his wife that things get hairy.
“The minute Cliff shot his wife with the shark gun, he knew it was a bad idea,” Tarantino explains. Now, Cliff feels bad about making this decision; as she lies dying, torn in two, he’s busy “expelling frantic heartfelt statements of remorse and regret.” But at the end of the day, he did it, and all self-deception aside (“It wasn’t like he plotted her murder. It was practically the accident he claimed it was. When his finger pulled the trigger, was it a conscious decision?”), he killed his wife and the third-person omniscient point of view the book brings to bear describes his machinations after the fact as efforts to literally get away with murder.
So, Cliff killed his wife. Let’s just accept that the novelization is confirmation of this having happened in the movie as well, even if the book differs from the movie in a couple of clear ways (e.g., the meeting between Rick [Leonardo Dicaprio] and Marvin Schwarz [Al Pacino] that takes place in Frank and Musso’s in the movie takes place between them at Marvin’s WMA office).
Allow me to suggest that this removal of ambiguity is one of the rare instances that makes a movie more interesting rather than less. This is not always the case, obviously. The Green Knight would not necessarily be more interesting if we know that Gawain (Dev Patel) indeed loses his head at the end, nor do we need to know for sure whether that spinning top falls in Inception. Having something to discuss is good, and discussing what, exactly, we think actually happened is entertaining.
But in this circumstance, a lack of ambiguity forces us to deal with some uncomfortable questions about cheering for Cliff as he tears apart the trio of Mansonites. Here’s a man who brought the Manson Family’s terror to an end but only did so because he’s a straight-up murderer himself; his cruelty and his penchant for murder rights a historical wrong in a fantasy context. It makes us happy. It brings us joy to watch them being deformed and disfigured by this unrepentant murderer even if we consider ourselves to be nonviolent people. As Orwell put it, “Those who abjure violence can only do so by others committing violence on their behalf,” and that’s true even in this fictional form.
What are we to make of this lover of European cinema who also happens to be a killer, his artistic tastes clearly doing nothing to make him a better person despite the fact that we hold true the ideal that art can educate and improve? What are we to do with this dog lover who killed his wife? How can we reconcile this rough man who eliminated an alternate America of one of its greatest scourges precisely because he’s the sort of guy who can kill with quickness?
I don’t know, honestly. It is unsettling to consider the possibility that we need bad people to do things we are incapable of. But that’s what makes Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood great art. And Quentin Tarantino one of our great artists.