This article contains spoilers for Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. Read at your own risk.
There are very few men like Quentin Tarantino left in the movie industry. While some filmmakers have an uncompromising vision, only a small group are able to deliver story-focused pieces of cinema with large budgets to back it up. This privilege has allowed him to deliver a multitude of iconic characters, each using well-written dialogue to reach their status of fame.
With Tarantino’s ninth film recently being released, many anticipated the potentially fantastic roles to be played. Perhaps not surprisingly, the writer/director once again delivered a fantastic end product, backed up by wonderful performances. While there is much to talk about with every aspect of the movie, one of its lead characters is maybe the most interesting element of all. That man, is Cliff Booth.
More Than a Brother and a Little Less Than a Wife
In Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, we follow two best friends attempting to make their way through an industry passing them by. Leonardo DiCaprio is ageing movie star Rick Dalton, a man that relies on Booth for more than just friendship. With Dalton on set attempting to resurrect a fading career, we are then able to dive into the everyday life of a seasoned stuntman.
You see, while Rick Dalton is in costume pretending to be a cowboy, Booth is travelling through Los Angeles as the real deal. He is a no-nonsense renegade, wandering from place to place, leaving his mark everywhere he goes. In this regard, he comes across as a charismatic hero. Holding his own against Bruce Lee is just one moment that emits an attractive toughness for this character. Strung together with the slick dialogue that keeps us interested, this is just the surface for the layered outlaw.
Cliff Booth is more than just a strong-armed American. He is a man made of many qualities, not all of them necessarily good. The truth is, the man shows a lot of bad traits as well. He doesn’t hesitate to kill the hippies at the end of the film, for one. Yes, they are The Manson Family, but for all Booth knows they could have just been robbers. However satisfying their deaths were, Brad Pitt’s character intentionally adds an element of brutality.
However, none of this is a negative for the movie. In fact, these extra dimensions for Booth only add to the overall product. This is not a generic mainstream hero, he is a man that we are not always sure about. Since the film’s release, it seems that many of the discussions around Cliff Booth have revolved around a certain scene. A flashback that has stopped some viewers from liking this stuntman altogether. This is of course, the boat scene.
In this universe, it is heavily rumoured that Cliff Booth murdered his ex-wife. We never learn the truth but we do witness a scene where Cliff and his ex-wife are on a boat together. She berates Booth as he sits holding a spear gun, with the sequence cutting away before anything is revealed. To some, the answer to this mystery is vital to whether they like this man or not. However, as is the case with many of the inviduals Tarantino has created, Cliff Booth is a great character either way.
You see, this puzzling element only adds to the many layers of Booth. The fact that we don’t know what happened is more interesting, allowing us to decide if he is the person he appears to be. Maybe he killed his wife by mistake, maybe he did not kill her at all and maybe he is a sociopath who murdered her with intent. Yes, the answer changes his moral compass. Yes, the answer has an effect on who he is. But in the end, he is a fantastically written personality all the same. While the way the viewer interprets the “boat scene” might paint the rest of the film with a different shade, each interpretation is still propelled, in part, by an incredibly intriguing character.
Tarantino simply does not write straight up good guys. He actually prefers to delve into the darker truth of humans that are quite the opposite. While Cliff Booth is likeable in many ways, this should not be the barometer that we use for our enjoyment of a film. The duty of a director is to deliver a compelling story. If the best way to show a good narrative is via complex men that may not be clean-cut, then that is how the movie should be made.
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood proves that Quentin Tarantino is still as talented as ever. Cliff Booth and Rick Dalton are two icons that very well could end up being as timeless as Vincent Vega or The Bride. With his supposed final film up next, cinema fans everywhere are hoping he can end his career on another high note.