The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – Lazy Stereotyping Undermines Original Storytelling

Fresh from the festival circuit, the Coen Brothers latest instalment has landed. It’s being lauded as a masterpiece, the brothers’ greatest work (clearly untrue, Fargo is their only film that can righteously claim that title) and is sure to snap up a few wins come awards season, even though it was released via Netflix (enemy of cinema-goers everywhere, apparently). Perhaps this is a bigger topic for another article, but don’t we want films to be seen and isn’t Netflix a far more affordable and accessible option that overpriced cinema screenings? I digress.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs isn’t a ballad, as the title suggests, and nor is it really a film, as the format suggests. It’s a collection of stories set in the late 1890’s that focus on the ins and outs of Frontier life in America. The stories all rest on a pivotal time period for the people of America – a time of growth, expansion, unfettered violence and change which no-one could ever come back from.

Buster Scrugg’s six vignettes don’t have an obvious thread tying them together, other than the de-romanticising of the Western genre which we will talk more about later, but they do all dabble in death. A brief overview of each segment; the titular ‘Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ stars Tim Blake Nelson as a cartoonish ‘fastest gun in the West’ who prematurely killed by someone wanting his title, ‘Near Algodones’ sees James Franco (ew) fail at robbing a bank and is consequently hanged, ‘Meal Ticket’ explores travelling entertainment and what happens when one isn’t useful anymore, ‘All Gold Canyon’ features a prospector digging for gold in a lush valley and  ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled’ follows a woman on the Oregon trail who meets an untimely end at her own hand. The final segment, ‘The Mortal Remains’ deals with death in a different way – the entire segment could be interpreted as the grim reaper driving his victims to the other side, but it is also the only segment where no-one is killed onscreen.

The Coen brothers take imagery and stories that have regurgitated about the West, the Pioneers, the Gold Rush and more, and put their signature spin on it. Take for example the Cowboy, a staple of American culture – an image derived from the ‘Wild West’. We have two cowboy characters in Buster Scruggs – James Franco’s bank robber and Billy Knapp (Bill Heck) who leads the wagons to Orgeon in ‘The Gal who Got Rattled’. They might look the part but Franco’s character almost ends up strangled by his own horses inability to stop eating, and then dies by the noose anyway, and Knapp is unhappy with his life on the trail, proposing to Alice as a way of escaping and not because he actually feels anything for her.

The romantic image of the good old days is tainted by the destinies of each protagonist in each story – Blake Nelson’s fastest gun may be jovial and singing but he gets shot in the head before his story even gets started. The prospector from ‘All Gold Canyon’ not only destroys the tranquil landscape, but is shot in the back by a competitor ready to steal the fortune that he worked so hard for.

The entire landscape that the Manifest Destiny was written against is critiqued and questioned throughout the film but there’s one aspect which stands out as a glaring oversight at best, racism at worst.

So this is where Buster Scruggs becomes problematic. Its main mission seems to be subverting our expectations and ideas about Westerns (the films of old and the time period itself). Yet it treats its Native American characters as a homogeneous group of villains that can be called upon to attack the white characters as and when the plot depends on it.

The Native Americans are an integral part of the history of America – there is no looking at the American West without making some mention of them. By the late 1800’s, many of the Native Americans were relegated to reservations as dictated by the Government – they were methodically exterminated or forced to assimilate. Yet this group of people is still used as a lazy stand-in for villainy or savagery (or as a basic opposition for genteel white folks) whenever there is need for some action or threat in the narrative.

Buster Scruggs is guilty of using this technique. Native Americans appear in two segments – ‘Near Algodones’ and ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled’. In both segments, they appear as a large group – none are individually named and none have any lines of dialogue. We are not invited to know more about them, just that they seemingly like to inflict violence for no discernible reason. They appear on horizons or in the distance and do so when dramatic tension is required, but their own stories are not investigated or explored

In a film which charts the stories of six different people living in the American West, all six people are white and there are no stories about the Native Americans. In a way, it would have been more respectful to leave them out altogether to avoid the damaging and lazy stereotyping which occurs in the film. Yet again, the Coen Brothers are not stupid. It is not an accident that the Native Americans are underdeveloped and under-represented in Buster Scruggs. This is a leftover tactic from the Westerns that Buster Scruggs draws upon – the John Wayne movies, the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1970’s. Back then racist representation was the norm, but this is 2018 and one cannot plead ignorance anymore.

With the biting commentary on idolised ideology of that era, why not include criticism of the commonly held view of Native Americans too?

Time of the Month: MOLLY SOLVERSON (FARGO)

Molly Solverson, played by Allison Tolman, is a police officer from the town of Bemidji – a place which is home to season one of Noah Hawley’s television series Fargo. From start, Solverson is proven to be a capable, unflappable officer who is growing into a exceptionally talented member of the Bemidji police force. She is still learning, especially from her mentor Vern before he is murdered, but she has a confidence in her abilities that is rare to see from a woman in such a male dominated career.

When strange events (namely, murders) start occurring in Bemidji and the neighbouring town of Fargo, it is the Bemidji police force who are put on the case. Fargo begins with three victims – Sam Hess (a local ‘big-man’), Pearl Nygaard (wife of main character Lester Nygaard) and Vern (esteemed Chief of Police, and friend of Molly). Right from the start, Molly (rightly) suspects that Lester Nygaard is the culprit, or at least involved in the murders.

Molly constantly perseveres throughout the season, pleading with Chief of Police Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk) to see her reasoning. For a multitude of reasons, Bill refuses to entertain her theories. The main issue for Bill seems to be that he knows Lester Nygaard and he believes that Lester could never do anything like this. They went to high-school together, grew up together – it’s a version of the ‘old boys club’. Molly rejects this notion because she is an outsider – she isn’t ‘one of the boys’. She is able to see past friendship and emotion to work out what is really going on in Bemidji – a skill that is stereotypically linked to masculinity. 

Despite claims that Molly is based on Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand from the Coen brothers original film of the same name), the only things that the two characters really have in common are their professions and that they both become pregnant at some point. The similarities, largely, end there. Marge is a no nonsense police officer, wise and calm. She isn’t hassled about being a woman in the force, she isn’t undermined and there is no sense that she is in a ‘man’s world’.

Molly, on the other hand, is the one lone female face in a male dominated television series and police precinct. Vern makes it clear to her in the first episode that he thinks she is more suited for the Chief of Police job than Bill Oswalt, yet Bill is promoted without a second thought when Vern dies. Molly’s tough and determined, but the society in which she lives in shown to be full of sexist comments and patriarchal systems. This is a far cry from Marge, who is allowed to be a person in her own right, rather than being categorised as a the only woman in a room full of men.

I think it’s pretty important that we do recognise Molly breaks certain conventions that we expect of women on screen. She’s not thin. Molly is a bigger woman, but this is never commented on by herself or anyone else. Molly’s physical attributes are irrelevant, as Allison Tolman was swift to point out to some fat-phobic jerks on twitter.

The biggest crime against Molly (I mean, apart from the actual illegal crime of being shot), came in the final episode of season 1. Gus, Molly’s lovable but useless husband, pleads with her not to go after Malvo. He begs her to think of their unborn child and their future together. She concedes. She will stay at the station and miss out on catching the serial killer that has evaded her for over a year. In the meantime, Gus himself stumbles upon Malvo’s hiding place and take it upon himself to wait for Malvo to return home. Gus, the ex-police officer. Gus, the ex-police officer that let Malvo get away in the very second episode. Gus, the man who preaches safety to his wife, but goes completely gung-ho and kills Malvo himself.

Molly has been on this case, and right about this case, from the very start. To take that moment away from her feels cheap and nasty. It was Molly who deserved the praise and respect for solving the case because it was Molly who never gave up, even when she was told to stand down. To rub salt into the wounds, Molly even agrees that Gus should take the commendation he has been awarded for killing Malvo – even though they are both perfectly aware that trophy should belong to Molly and Molly alone.

Perhaps there is a wider point about gender dynamics at play here, and maybe I am not giving the writers of Fargo enough credit. It’s reminiscent of that age old phrase, ‘behind every successful man is a woman who put him there’ – except Molly actually did ALL of the groundwork, with Gus stepping in at the very end. Perhaps it is a comment on egos; Molly is humble and focused solely on doing her job, whereas Gus feels that he still has something to prove after failing so badly in the force.

I guess one of the reasons why Molly Salveson appears to be such an interesting and complicated character is that all of the other women in Fargo are little more than cardboard cut-out tropes.

Gina Hess, widow of the late Sam Hess – a character whose death sets off a domino effect in the first season – is a golddigger. Ida Thurman, widow of the late police officer Verne Thurman, plays the role of grieving widow and not much more. It’s interesting that the two other female characters after Molly are both categorised by their relationship to men. Gina and Ida are only involved in the events because of their husbands and neither of them have their own narrative arc.

In fact, Gina’s screen time mostly revolves around her seducing, shagging and being screwed over by Lester Nygaard – a man who has killed his wife.

The events of Fargo are set in motion after Lester kills his own wife – Pearl Nygaard. The two have a difficult relationship (and by difficult, I mean that we see Pearl ask Lester to do some jobs around the house and she mentions how successful his brother is) and Lester ends up smashing her brains in with a hammer, in the basement of their house. Fargo is all about it’s characters, and Lester killing Pearl is the catalyst for Lester’s transformation from bullied insurance salesman to successful, jail-avoiding business owner.

What makes me slightly uncomfortable about Pearl’s death is that she is never really treated as a human being. Pearl wasn’t a nice person (“I married the wrong Nygaard”) but her death is not seen as a terrible thing. We spend little time with Pearl before she is murdered, and there is very little conversation about her afterwards. In comparison to the grief expressed about Verne’s murder, or the way we are encouraged to feel sorry for the countless people that Malvo kills, Pearl isn’t really mourned at all.

Though Fargo may not be as progressive in terms of female representation as the movie that was released over 20 years ago, I am still going to be sad to say goodbye to Molly when I move on to season 2. Here’s to the women working hard in a man’s world, and here’s to Fargo hopefully channelling some better characters for women.