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?