Why Kurt Russell Has Become Our Ideal 21st Century Western Hero

There’s a moment in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight when bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth, played with mustache-flaring perfection by Kurt Russell, sends stagecoach driver O.B. (James Park) back out into the blizzard to dispose of a bucket of guns.  When O.B. asks why he’s landed this unfortunate job, Ruth replies, “Your jacket’s still on, and I sorta, kinda trust ya.” Close your eyes when he says that line, and you can hear a familiar cadence: in the rhythm, the timbre of his voice, and the brashness of his tone, Russell sounds like John Wayne. (It’s not the first time Tarantino’s indulged Russell’s Duke impression.) And that echo is appropriate, since Eight is the second film in recent months – after Bone Tomahawk, out this week on DVD and Blu-ray – to find a gloriously hairy Russell making his way through a Western tale. There’s something about the actor that just seems right in these films, that makes him fit there in a way few modern actors do.

The Eight/Bone double-bill (and seriously, watch them back-to-back if you can) isn’t Russell’s first time in the saddle; he fronted Tombstone back in 1994, brandishing the sheriff’s badge that he dons again in Bone. His work in the earlier film was taken somewhat for granted, as everyone was busy being wowed by Val Kilmer’s career-best turn as Doc Holliday, pasty and wheezy and fabulous. That was the scene-stealer role, and Kilmer knew it – and so did Russell, who’s never been a showboat, and instead excels as characters whose defining trait is often their steely resolve. It’s that quality that makes him an ideal Western hero.

Or anti-hero, as the case may be. He’s certainly not a traditionally sympathetic character in The Hateful Eight; his tough bounty hunter spends a fair amount of the picture’s running time hurling hands and invective at his prisoner, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Yet, as was the case with even the hard-edged Western protagonists of Peckinpah and Mann, John Ruth is guided by his personal sense of right and wrong – specifically, his unbending rule that even the bounties labeled “dead or alive” will make it to the hangman’s rope, as clarified in a discussion of the difference between justice and frontier justice.

Coincidentally enough, his Bone Tomahawk character, Sheriff Hunt, subscribes to the same code of ethics. When he and his “back-up deputy” Chicory (Richard Jenkins, in a wonderfully Walter Brennan-esque turn) go to “make a survey” of a mysterious stranger causing trouble in the town watering hole, he tells the man, in a low, flat voice, “If you move in a hasty manner, I’ll put a bullet in you.” He says it in a way that makes you believe him – and sure enough, a few moments later, he proves as good as his word. But he merely nicks the ne’er-do-well in the leg, and when he calls the doctor’s assistant to mend him, his instructions are telling. “Do what you can for him,” he shrugs. “It’s very likely he’s gonna get hanged, but it’d be nice if the families of the people he bushwacked could come to town and watch him go purple on the rope.”

The tone he takes when he makes that announcement is firm and matter-of-fact, and he never raises his voice; he doesn’t have to. Hunt is literally the law, and is used to his word being taken as such. The confidence with which Russell wears that badge (and, not to sound like a broken record here, that magnificent mustache) is the key to the performance – and all of his performances these days, really. He’s been on this earth 64 years, and acting in movies for more than 50 of them. His early start makes him a rare leading man who dates back to the era when screen cowboys were a ubiquity, rather than a novelty; he’s been onscreen most of his life, and to him, a Western hero means something. And thus, as with the (often terrific) work Duke Wayne was doing at that age, Russell’s acting is deeply rooted in an undefinable, ineffable quality of sheer, earned authority.

So when Sheriff Hunt tells his wife, on his way out the door on a dangerous mission, “I’m goin’. It isn’t an option. Let’s not have words on this,” he gives it the effortless simplicity of Wayne’s best readings. Later, he tells a badly injured compatriot, “That leg can’t be disregarded. You’re stayin’,” and you sort of don’t believe the other guy would push back. This kind of offhand playing sells every scene he’s in; he doesn’t seem capable of uttering an inauthentic word, which makes the film’s third-act turn into hard, stomach-churning terror all the more horrifying. The blood and guts are grisly enough, but the look on this good man’s face as he regards what’s become of his rescue errand has more dread than any effects artist can conjure.

Yet Russell never overplays, even in his final scene, as he utters a line of sheer, heartbreaking poetry to his buddy, bids farewell with slightly wet eyes, and then shakes his head, waves the man off, reloads his rifle, and points it at the door. Right then, he has the same glimmer of sensitivity that Wayne, Cooper, Stewart, and the other great Western heroes kept in reserve for such a moment. But it was always a sensitivity gilded with their inherent strength.

Kurt Russell in "The Hateful Eight"

And in that way, his performance in Hateful Eight is the one that pushes the boundaries of the Western Man a bit further, as Russell (and Tarantino) frame John Ruth as not only flawed, but vulnerable. That vulnerability is hinted at early, when he reads the letter fellow bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) keeps in his pocket, bearing the signature of President Lincoln. Even the request is somewhat childlike, a favor asked quietly and hopefully, and when it’s granted, watch the way he grins as he puts on those little specs and takes in every word, grinning and nodding as he notes how the line about Mary Todd “gets me.”

As with so much of Hateful Eight, the patience of this scene, and the air that Tarantino lets into it (Ruth basically reads the letter in real time), isn’t just marking the film’s lengthy time. Our awareness of his investment in “the Lincoln letter” creates a ping of sympathy for an otherwise incorrigible character when its true pedigree is revealed. Tarantino holds on Russell’s face as he slowly realizes the truth, and when his fears are confirmed and they all point and laugh, the camera stays on him. He’s a tough guy in a mean line of work, but when Warren asks him, “What’s the matter, John Ruth? I hurt your feelings,” he replies, “As a matter of fact… you did.”

That scene reminds us that there’s no such thing as a simple, “old-fashioned” oater anymore, or a white hat-clad Western hero. It remains a genre ripe for revisitation, reinvention, and revision, and Russell has proven himself more than able to lead that charge. We got two Kurt Russell Westerns in 2015 – that’s a trend I’d like to see continue into the next year, and the next, and the next.