This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Sonny Bunch’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Did Cliff do it?
Murder his wife, I mean. There's an intentional ambiguity to the question, an open-endedness. After all, we never see him pull the trigger on that speargun, even if we see his finger curled around it in violation of gun safety etiquette. Kurt Russell's character seems to think he did, as do others on the set of THE GREEN HORNET. Rick, on the other hand, brushes that aside as nonsense. An unfair pejorative slapped on a war hero.
And while I'm happy to acknowledge that, again, the text of the picture is intentionally ambiguous, it feels clear to me that Cliff did, in fact, intentionally murder his wife on that boat. A crime he did, in fact, get away with. I'd suggest that Kurt Russell serving as the voice of bald truth elsewhere in the film—his narration about Rick's DUI troubles kicking off with "That's a big fuckin' lie"—gives added heft to his character's straightforward proclamation that Cliff killed his wife, but then interviews with QT suggest that's just a happy coincidence.
Fortunately for us, accepting into your heart that Cliff is, in essence, a bad person makes the movie much more interesting to contemplate, its characters that much more entertaining to wrestle with. Because if it's just a movie about a guy who got a raw deal due to rumors proving his mettle ... well, okay. That's fine, I guess. We don't really see him "redeemed." It's not like we get the sense that he's going to be welcomed with open arms back into the stuntman community after all this.
If it is, instead, a movie featuring a bad person doing a world of good ... well that rather complicates and colors every other scene he's in. If Cliff's just a bad dude who's not necessarily looking for trouble, but happy when trouble finds him, it changes the whole tenor of the Spahn Ranch scene. All of a sudden it's not about a good guy checking in on an old friend. It's about a guy looking for hippies to whale on. For a way to channel his socially unacceptable rage. And I think that's part of the reason why QT lingers in such a lovingly grotesque way on the beatdown of the guy who slashed the tires on Rick's car. Because Cliff is *disappointed* when he learned George Spahn (Bruce Dern) is fine with his current situation. Cliff *wanted* to do violence to the hippie assholes who have infested his former place of work.
More importantly: *We* wanted him to crack some skulls.
And if you accept that desire rests deep inside his soul—an urge to do violence that can only be let out in very certain, very rare circumstances, an urge he last let slip on that boat—it perceptibly changes our view of the excessive, and awesome, violence he does to the Mansonites at Rick's house. It forces us to consider the necessity of rough men standing ready to visit violence upon those who would do us harm.
Or maybe he's just a good guy at heart who caught a bad break and Rick was lucky to have him around that fateful summer evening.