The Year of Imperator Furiosa and Daisy Domergue

By  · Published on January 11th, 2016

This weekend, to help sort out my conflicting impressions of The Hateful Eight, I set aside a few hours to see it a second time in theaters. Seeing movies twice often makes me feel guilty; there are countless films released every year I never have the time to see, so spending additional money on a high-profile release never feels like the best allocation of resources. Still, for The Hateful Eight, I’ll make an exception. Few films excited me as much in their opening measures as Quentin Tarantino’s most recent release, and few films provided me with moments of such intense disappointment. It was my hope that a second screening would help nudge me in one direction or the other and give me the final word on the film’s shifting tonality.

As I entered the theater, though, I had one more goal in mind: take another long, hard look at Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance as Daisy Domergue. As I look back on 2015, it seems that Daisy Domergue was one of a trio of female performances that dominated the popular conversation and set expectations for what was acceptable going forward. And with all due respect to Daisy Ridley’s Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it is Domergue and Mad Max: Fury Road’s Imperator Furiosa that I’d like to focus on here.

Let’s start with Furiosa. With eight months of Mad Max: Fury Road obsession under our belt, it shouldn’t be particularly controversial to say that the movie belongs to Charlize Theron’s character. The film is structured around Furiosa’s arc as a savior of the Citadel; even with Tom Hardy’s Max riding shotgun and emerging for the occasional moments of narrative lucidity, it is Furiosa who drives the biggest rig, takes the most important shot, and rescues those in need. Her character has emerged as one of the great action heroes of all time, regardless of gender, and that realization by audiences everywhere has played a big part in driving the film’s box office success. For many, Furiosa was a high-water mark of genre cinema, and it set a bar that many films will struggle to meet for years to come.

And while it isn’t my intention to take anything away from Furiosa or Mad Max: Fury Road, it is worth pointing out that it accomplished all of this within the established confines of revenge cinema. The female revenge film has its origins in horror and exploitation cinema of the 1970s, when movies like I Spit On Your Grave and blaxploitation cinema found female empowerment in pushing the boundaries of onscreen violence. In these films, women would often overcome physical and sexual assaults – and the failure of preexisting power structures to provide proper justice for them as victims – by serving as judge, jury, and executioner for their own causes. Rather than letting their victimhood limit or define them, these women would strike back, often with the type of onscreen violence and brutality that could only exist in genre cinema.

For decades, these types of films were a trendy pick for feminist film studies looking to explore onscreen female empowerment; in the past few years, though, new voices have questioned their status as progressive cinema. In many of these movies, women would not become empowered action heroes if they were not first rendered victims by either the film’s (male) villain or an uncaring (and overtly masculine) power structure. These assaults often take place onscreen as well, adding a layer of voyeurism that somewhat obfuscates the message of female empowerment that is supposed to be at the very heart of the film’s narrative. Here the ideas of spectatorship – the assumption of a predominantly male audience and the aesthetics of sexual violence – can be seen as undercutting the power of the revenge arc itself.

While Furiosa may be a great action hero for countless men and women alike, her growth as a character falls solidly within the confines of the revenge arc. Mad Max: Fury Road puts Furiosa’s victimhood – the loss of her mother, the horrible things that she had to endure as a child, and the programming required to become one of Immortan Joe’s soldiers – front-and-center in its narrative, even showing her attempt to return to her childhood home and a time before she underwent her trauma. While Furiosa herself is not treated by the film as an overt sexual object, the wives of Immortan Joe are depicted as both sex symbol and soldier, following in this same tradition of revenge films on a much grander scale. This does not imply that the film is in any way sexist; rather, it suggests that it works within more traditional generic modes. In this way, it might be fair to call Mad Max: Fury Road the best possible outcome of a certain type of cinema, a blockbuster with an exploitation flair that elevates as often as it imitates.

Compare this to The Hateful Eight’s Daisy Domergue. In contrast to Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Domergue is pure malice, perhaps the most hateful of the eight and inarguably the one who shrugs off even the pretense of legality to justify her violence. While other characters may disguise their racism and bloodthirst behind a veneer of justice, Daisy Domergue has killed – and does kill again – with unchecked pleasure, regularly running her tongue across the blood and viscera on her face as Minnie’s Haberdashery quickly devolves into a second Civil War. From a historical perspective – even accounting for the ultraviolent Westerns of Sergio Leone and beyond – Domergue is a marvel of appropriation, a traditionally male-coded character written for a woman without any attempt to “correct” her racist dialogue and thin motivation. The fact that Daisy Domergue could just as easily have been a Duke Domergue – and that Jennifer Jason Leigh is comfortable in playing Domergue as devoid or redemptive qualities – indicates a smarter approach to characterization than many films with a more palatable vocabulary.

What is so striking about Domergue, however, is the ease with which she breaks free of the victim narrative entirely. We never really know the events leading up to Domergue’s capture; nor do we know – outside of her direct family ties – how she came to be so actively involved in the Jody Domingre Gang. Even some of the most memorable female villains in cinema have been depicted as nurture gone awry, a victim of their circumstances who chose to use their empowerment for greed rather than justice. There is no such underlying victimhood to Daisy Domergue. Though she might be introduced as a prisoner chained to John Ruth’s arm and subject to his occasional acts of brutality, we never doubt that Domergue has Ruth exactly where she wants him. In a genre populated by violent characters without an established backstory, the fact that Domergue can snarl with the best of them and requires no justification may just be her finest characteristic.

While one character may be the outcome of victimhood and another avoids it entirely, the common factor for both characters – other than the quality of their performances – is the refusal to turn their development into spectacle. It seems obvious to say that an origin story or flashback would play no part in the narrative of The Hateful Eight, but Quentin Tarantino has used this device several times (most notably in Kill Bill) to kick off a character’s vengeance arc with a dash of voyeurism. Furiosa, meanwhile, offers a full package of victimhood moments to choose from, but George Miller wisely elects not to make this part of Mad Max: Fury Road’s main story. In both cases this adds to the power of the female character while simultaneously strengthening the narrative, which bodes well for movies that hope to follow in these films’ footsteps.

And that brings us back to my matinee of The Hateful Eight. The film gains a great deal from a second screening; the scenes that grind loudly against the film’s grim tone are more easily disregarded while the anticipation of the film’s bloody conclusion allows you to savor some of the earlier conversations (and how the characters return to them in their final moments). Most importantly, though, a second screening allows you to fully savor Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Daisy Domergue as one of the most important performances of the year. When we look back to 2015, I hope we’ll view it as a big step forward for women in cinema, and that much of that can be traced back to the evolution of old forms in Mad Max: Fury Road’s revenge cinema and the creation of new ones with The Hateful Eight.

Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)