Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a meandering recreation of ’60s Hollywood that weaves together dozens of intertwined narratives of both real and fictional people. That makes it somewhat easy to forget some of the film’s unanswered questions. In a brief—and controversial—turn in the film, Tarantino introduces the idea that Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth might have killed his own wife. Though it’s rumored around this fictional Hollywood that Cliff is a murderer, Tarantino’s film never answers the question, leaving it as an ambiguous, and problematic, question mark.
The film presents the question in a brief flashback, where Cliff is drunk on a boat, holding a harpoon being egged on by his wife. The boat lurches forward and it’s implied that Cliff either accidentally or purposefully shot his nagging wife. The mystery is made even stranger when Booth tells a Manson family hitchhiker that he’s “avoided jail” for his whole life, making the question even more pressing—did Booth kill his wife?
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Pitt confirmed that he knows the answer, but responds, “That, I will never tell,” adding that he doesn’t want to ruin the idea that his character could be perceived as a hero. “Why spoil that,” he asks. What Pitt appears to be hinting at here is that he knows Cliff is a murderer, but wants to keep it a secret so people continue to like his character. We’ll never know, though, it seems.
But the real problem with this scene isn’t that we don’t have an answer, it’s that the possible murder of a woman is played for comedy in Quentin Tarantino’s movie—which is indicative of a greater issue throughout his work, and seen elsewhere in OUATIH.