But despite its intention to redirect public attention to the actress’s life and art, the film ultimately starts to seem as anxious and evasive as a witness in a murder investigation who talks around the subject that questioners are most interested in.
This is not to say that “What Remains Behind” is without value, much less that this writer subscribes to any of the more sinister theories about how Wood died. All we know for certain is that she disappeared from a yacht near Catalina Island, where she’d anchored with passengers that also included Christopher Walken, her costar in her last film “Brainstorm,” and that the Coast Guard found her drowned corpse a few hours later. The simplest explanation for what happened is that Wood, who was staying in a cabin below deck with Wagner, got up at the end of a rainy night to tighten the rope on a dinghy that had been banging against the hull and disturbing her sleep (something family members said was a source of regular irritation for Wood whenever they sailed), then slipped on the wet deck, fell overboard, and drowned.
Nevertheless, Wood fans, Hollywood conspiracy theorists, and some representatives of law enforcement have speculated on darker explanations—and not just because Wood was said to have a fear of “dark water” and got injured on a film set as a child actress when she broke her wrist falling into a water tank while shooting a flood scene. (Gregson Wagner and other witnesses discount that particular legend; her daughter notes that her mom loved swimming in the family pool, and asks, “Who doesn’t have a fear of dark water?”) Theories abound that Wagner killed Wood, either with malicious intent or as the result of a drunken argument that inadvertently caused her to fall overboard. These theories were amplified by rumors that either Wood had been having an affair with Walken on set, or that Walken and Wagner were having an affair off-camera, and that one spouse confronted the other and things got ugly.
Walken, who declined to appear in “What Remains Behind,” doesn’t get to address infidelity within the context of the narrative, except in the form of an old “Entertainment Tonight” clip where Walken refuses to speculate on what happened and expresses irritation that people won’t stop spinning theories. Douglas Trumbull, the director of “Brainstorm,” says Walken and Wood displayed zero physical chemistry in their sex scene, and this is presented as conclusive proof that nothing untoward was happening off-camera. But actors who have the hots for each other offscreen can be sexless onscreen and actors who hate each other’s guts can strike onscreen sparks, so that proves or disproves nothing. Trumbull’s take doesn’t acknowledge the Wagner and Walken theory, which the film avoids completely. Wagner says on camera that in the weeks preceding Wood’s death, Walken had been admonishing Wood to concentrate on her career rather than her domestic life, and that Wagner lost his temper with Walken because he thought it was none of his business, but stops short of connecting that to Wagner’s final moments, saying only that she went up on deck when he wasn’t around and vanished.