I honestly couldn’t decide which of these two brilliantly original, yet still nostalgically derivative modern Westerns were better, so I decided to amalgamate them into one spot. Portraying different, yet familiar sides of the same coin in each movie Russell plays legendary hangman John Ruth in Quentin Tarantino’s eighth studio outing The Hateful Eight, which depicts Ruth’s transportation of purported criminal Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the town of Red Rock, there to be hung for her crimes. Along the way Ruth must take shelter in a log cabin in the wintry wilderness of Wyoming, where various characters all conspire to outdo and outthink each other: a Civil War veteran Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), the suspicious, supposed sheriff of Red Rock himself Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), ‘Bob’ the Mexican (Demián Bichir), shadowy Oswaldo Mowbray (Tim Roth), Joe ‘Cowpuncher’ Gage (Michael Madsen), and the racist, ex-Civil War general Sandy Smithers ( played wonderfully by Bruce Dern).
In Bone Tomahawk, Russell plays Franklin Hunt, the Sheriff of the small and ironically named town of Bright Hope, alongside his Deputy, Chicory (Richard Jenkins, whom I am astonished to point out that I didn’t recognize in the slightest when I saw the film in the cinema), womanizer and suspiciously proficient gunman John Brooder (Matthew Fox), and local foreman Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson) and his wife, Samantha (Lili Simmons). After the kidnap of Arthur’s wife by an insane tribe of cannibalistic Indians, Hunt mobilizes the motley crew of Bright Hope and sets off to try and save her, with gory consequences.
What is absolutely hooking about both of these great Westerns is their ability to tap into the examples of two great genres of the Horror/Thriller genre: the cannibal film and the whodunit. Where The Hateful Eight mixes Tarantino’s brash, inventive, and ubiquitous style with the plot lines of The Thing and an Agatha Christie novel, director and novelist S. Craig Zahler’s debut picture Bone Tomahawk goes back to the simplistic, brutal, yet endlessly entertaining sub-genre of the Italian cannibal movies of the 1970s and 80s. What both films do create, however, is an excellent melding of genres; while the horror elements are present in both, they also exude a quality of authentic Western values, and traditional, true-to-life outlooks on the frontier mentality.
Both films act as road movies in their first (and in Tomahawk’s case, second) act, the quintessential Western trope of the journey and its effects on its travellers. Ruth uses the time on his trip to flush out any suspicious activities (if any are present) from his companions, whereas Sheriff Hunt seems a genuine, well-respected guy in his town, and his efforts to rescue Arthur’s wife seem wholly selfless and co-operative.
Significantly, Russell also plays lawmen in both films, albeit different professions of lawmen. This is a profession that always stays key to the Western, as it restablishes the differences between order and chaos, right and wrong, and crime and punishment. Domergue and her crew represent the chaos of Ruth’s West, while the cannibal Indians (technically the original ‘bad guys’ of the genre) inhabit the horrific abyss of Hunt’s. These men represent the last line of defence in a world of uncertain fortune, danger, and untold violence, usually being portrayed as no-nonsense, hard, larger-than-life figures; here, however, Russell goes the other way and plays them with a quiet reserve, a subtle, mercurial dismissiveness that allows hardly any room for emotion or outburst.
What is so great about his portrayal in both movies is his ability to convey the opposite characteristics in each film: Ruth is dismissive, hard, cold, rude, racist even, yet there is a part of him we sense is vulnerable, which is being shadowed over by his hardened exterior-we can see this in the scene where Daisy plays the guitar: he almost seems to enjoy it at one point, before reverting to his usual self. Sheriff Hunt seems the opposite: quieter, kinder, an all-round pal to everyone in Bright Hope; this is home for him, it’s quite clear to see, and he is happy that everyone else is happy. When Samantha is snatched by the Indians, this is the side to Hunt we kind of knew was under there deep down: he becomes a man determined to do anything to get back his fellow Bright Hoper, and negotiation is not going to be the method he chooses with his companions. Indeed, it becomes clear that Hunt has declared war on these savages, and he’ll stop at nothing to ensure their destruction and Samantha’s safe return.
Imbuing the lawmen of both films with an authenticity rarely seen (I can think of only Eastwood who exudes maybe more Western sentimentality) and avoiding the hoary and often-mocked cliché of the ‘traditional’ Western figure (how many times have you seen someone attempt to copy John Wayne’s bow-legged walk, and insist that he said ‘Get of your horse and drink your milk!’?), Russell is, for me, the focal point of both movies’ portrayal of the West, in all its brutal, uncertain, and ultimately transformative glory. Then again seeing how at age 10 one of his first roles was in the television Western series The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters (1963-4), and later roles in episodes of The Legend of Jesse James (1965-6) and The Road West (1966-7) it’s easy to see why the role means so much to him, and why he slips so seamlessly into it.