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.