The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs (A Feminist Flicker Excerpt)

From Feminist Flicker, on Channillo:

The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs


The Coen Brothers might be legendary filmmakers, but they are not known for their intersectional feminism. Their stories are entirely male-centric, and are filled with overwhelmingly white casts. Even those films that include notable women characters – such as Fargo, Raising Arizona, Intolerable Cruelty, or Burn After Reading – feature those characters as essentially Token Women, within a story that revolves around male dominance. This is important to note, because The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs is one of the best Coen Brothers films ever made, while also seeming to be something of an answer to that very argument.

The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs is an interesting event in film. It is the first time The Coen Brothers have shot a film digitally, and it is the first time they have made a film with Netflix. While the streaming platform has been making great strides in the commissioning of original movies, landing a Coen Brothers project is a huge leap for an organisation that has consistently stoked heated debate about the future of cinema. But, it is fitting that The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs is the project with which The Coen Brothers should take this step, because it is, in many ways, a direct note to audiences.

It is a tightly woven ‘Western Anthology’ film, in that it consists of six vignettes – all set on the American ‘frontier.’ The film is framed within the narrative device of an old story book that is illustrated with colour plates, and moves through its six chapters at a steady, assured pace. Four of the six chapters are about men (The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, Near Algodones, Meal Ticket, and All Gold Canyon), one is about a woman (The Gal Who Got Rattled), and the sixth includes a woman in its otherwise male ensemble (The Mortal Remains). While each chapter tells a different story, about different characters, each relates to the idea that ‘You can’t play another man’s hand.’

Opening with The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, we meet the titular character, played by Tim Blake Nelson. He is an amiable but deadly gunslinger, who rides through the ‘wild west’ on his trusty steed, singing and playing guitar. Through various interactions – including Buster breaking the fourth wall – we learn that Buster is a renowned killer, who is wanted, dead or alive.

This vignette, while setting up the overall theme of the anthology, serves as a searing indictment of the darker side of American culture. Locations are contrasted between a lawless cantina, and a saloon in which patrons must check their guns at the door. Violence still erupts in this ‘gun-free zone,’ however. The obsession with guns, the violence freely committed with a smile and song in the heart, and the notion of having to knock another down in order to succeed is all contained within this briefly told short story. Likewise, the frontier period setting leaves the presence of women as mere set dressing, with well-dressed ladies working in the background of the saloon specifically to entertain the male customers, and generate additional income for the establishment.

The second chapter – Near Algodones – opens with a cowboy (James Franco) approaching an isolated bank. Inside, he finds a lonely Teller (Stephen Root) and asks him if he’s ever been robbed. The Teller recounts his past experience with being held up, before fighting off the cowboy’s attempts to take the bank’s cash. This encounter leads to an attempted execution by law enforcement, which is interrupted by an attack by an Indigenous war party. Saved by a passing cowboy, he then unwittingly finds himself allied with a rustler, and is again sentenced to death. At the point of his execution, he is distracted by a pretty woman in the crowd, and it is implied that he dies with a smile.

The note of the death penalty cannot be avoided in examining this chapter and, when viewed within the context of the overall theme, the nonsensical and problematic nature of this outdated policy becomes even more blatant. The cowboy certainly does try to commit the crime of bank robbery in the first place, but is sentenced to death by a group of men while he is unconscious. He has no opportunity to mount a defence. The Indigenous war party interrupts them, however, and carries out exactly the same process on the group of lawmen – having decided for themselves that those men should die.

This drawing of parallels highlights the hypocrisy ingrained in current death penalty policies – particularly in a country that has committed genocide within its own boundaries in the past. But then, the Cowboy is sentenced to death again for a crime he did not commit. He is hanged because of his unknowing association with a rustler. This again speaks to the ludicrous and pointless nature of the death penalty policies – because the prevalence of individuals being wrongly convicted and incarcerated in privately operated prisons in America is well-documented.

The moment of his death, though, he catches sight of a young woman, smiling up at him from the throngs, and a look of contentment spreads across his face. “There’s a pretty girl,” he says aloud, to himself, before the hood is dropped over his head and he is killed. There is no hint of injustice in his voice – simply an ease, having been distracted from his plight by the social convention of pursuing women.

Chapter three – Meal Ticket – is a curious tale that features very little dialogue outside that which is performed by The Artist (Harry Melling). He is a young man, without limbs, who is transported through the towns of the ‘American Frontier’ by The Impresario (Liam Neeson). The Artist is placed on stage every night – before ever-shrinking crowds of increasingly disinterested people – to perform a lengthy monologue that includes the works of Shelley, Shakespeare, parts of the Bible, and the Gettysburg Address. Though we learn that The Artist has once known the love of a woman (because The Impresario visits a prostitute), he now has no life outside of The Impresario.

Eventually, their crowd is poached one night by a Chicken Impresario – a man with a chicken that appears to solve mathematical problems – and the Impresario buys the chicken from that man. On the journey that follows, they pass a ravine, and it soon becomes clear that the Impresario discards The Artist into it, in favour of pressing on with the chicken only.

This bleak and disturbing story is a condemnation of the audience that was drawn from the performance of The Artist, and toward the chicken. In having people choose a performing chicken over literary and theatrical art, this chapter draws clear parallels with the nature of entertainment today – with narrative drama having to compete with ever more ridiculous forms of reality ‘challenge’ television.

Chapter three is followed by All Gold Canyon, which is a sparse yet focused chapter featuring just two characters. The first, The Prospector (Tom Waits), arrives in a beautiful verdant valley, and scares away the wildlife with his loud song, and overbearing presence. He spends a number of days by the river in this valley, convinced that there is a pocket of gold to be found. He regularly addresses ‘Mr Pocket,’ as he methodically digs and pans for gold nuggets – finally closing in on his prize. As he breaks open the biggest rock to reveal the gold, a thief appears and shoots him in the back.

Ultimately, the Prospector comes out on top, and spends some time ranting about the way in which the Young Man tried to swoop in and take his gold after watching him do all the hard work. This correlates with the first chapter – The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs – and the idea of knocking down another in order to succeed. Here, though, much more is made of the generational difference.

The older Prospector works very hard to complete his task using traditional methods, before the later generation arrives and tries to profit without putting in the effort. This is also reflected in a scene in which The Prospector scales a nearby tall tree to steal some eggs from the nest of an owl, so that he can eat them. The owl watches on – seeing this man take the fruits of her labour – which provokes guilt in The Prospector, and makes him leave one for her to raise.

Chapter five – The Gal Who Got Rattled – is all about the impact that fear of male violence has in the lives of women. Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) is travelling in a wagon train with her brother, Gilbert (Jefferson Mays). The wagon train is making the long and arduous journey to Oregon, where Gilbert claims to have a business deal waiting, with additional plans to marry off his young sister to his prospective business partner. The wagon train is being escorted by the elderly Mr Arthur (Grainger Hines), and the younger Billy Knapp (Bill Heck).

Gilbert develops a cough and dies during the journey, however, leaving Alice in debt to the young man that is helping drive their team of horses. She turns to Billy Knapp for help and, after spending a number of evenings in deep discussion about possible plans of action, Billy proposes marriage, and Alice accepts.

Alice has been warned not to stray too far from the wagon train, as it is easy to get lost on the prairie, but one day, Mr Arthur discovers that she is missing. He finds her some way from the group, having followed the sound of her late brother’s dog barking and, having found the dog, laughing at the dog barking at prairie dogs. Admonishing her, he hides them both in a ditch when he spots and Indigenous war party on the horizon. He then leans down and explains to her in gruesome, unrelenting detail exactly what that war party would do to her if they caught her alive. Therefore, he argues, if she sees him overcome by the enemy, she is to shoot herself in the head – because falling into their hands would be a fate worse than death.

The fight ebbs and flows, until he is struck on the head by a warrior. He falls, but shoots the warrior and gets back on his feet – only to find that Alice has followed his instructions, and killed herself. He looks down on her pitifully and says, “She oughtn’t to have done it.”

The bitter irony of this chapter is driven home by the untimely death of Alice. The group is attacked by an Indigenous war party because of the actions of men – the men that committed genocide against the First Nations. This lack of safety on the prairie is due to male violence. When Mr Arthur describes her potential end to her, he is describing the consequences that she might suffer as a result of white patriarchy. But his description is of gendered violence – that she will suffer extreme pain at the hands of men, because of men. Her fear of this causes her to commit suicide, reducing her to collateral damage.

His assertion that ‘She oughtn’t to have done it,’ is a nod to victim-blaming culture. He went to great lengths to make her petrified of male violence, then blamed her when she let that fear get the better of her. This speaks to the way in which fear of male violence is used as a social control when it comes to women. We’re supposed to fear men, but be rational about it, so as not to ruin men’s plans by jumping the gun.

The final chapter, The Mortal Remains, takes place almost entirely inside a carriage. Inside the carriage are four men – Clarence (Brendan Gleeson), Thigpen (Jonjo O’Neill), Rene (Saul Rubinek), and The Trapper (Chelcie Ross) – and one woman, named Mrs Betjeman (Tyne Daly). They are all travelling to Fort Morgan. It opens with Thigpen singing a somewhat ribald folk song, which makes Mrs Betjeman visibly uncomfortable.

The rest of the journey is occupied by various conversations among the carriage inhabitants, largely about human nature. Mrs Betjeman, holding a Holy Bible, speaks with pride about her Christian faith, and the accomplishments of her husband – a renowned lecturer named Dr Betjeman. She explains that she is returning to him after living with her daughter and son-in-law for three years, however, as Dr Betjeman has been unwell.

The Trapper explains that he had a First Nations woman as a companion, with whom he could not converse, because neither spoke the other’s language. He did not even know her name. This also makes Mrs Betjeman uncomfortable. The Trapper insists that people are like ferrets, and are essentially interchangeable – and Mrs Betjeman takes exception to this. Rene then takes Mrs Betjeman to task for having imposed herself on her daughter for three years – insisting that people should live their own lives and that, indeed, ‘you cannot play another man’s cards.’

Rene and The Trapper upset Mrs Betjeman greatly, so Clarence sings a different folk song, which also objectifies women, before Thigpen explains that they are bounty hunters and are transporting the body of their latest target back to Fort Morgan. This casts a pall over the whole carriage. In describing their method, Thigpen points out that he distracts the target, and Clarence “thumps” them. Looking straight into the lens, almost as if addressing the audience, Thigpen launches into the theatrical opening of the scary story of The Midnight Caller, as an example.

“You know the story. People can’t get enough of them. Like, little children. Because, well, they connect the stories to themselves, I suppose. And we all love hearing about ourselves. So long as the people in the stories are us, but not us. Not us in the end, especially. The Midnight Caller gets him, never me. I’ll live forever.”

This, in the closing moments of The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, is when The Coen Brothers really bring it all home, and tie their threads together. Thigpen is talking about the way in which we all want to recognise ourselves in the stories we consume. We want to relate to them – and that is what we talk about when we discuss representation In a Hollywood that produces stories centred on white men, it means we all have to recognise ourselves, and relate to, white men – which makes the white male experience the default.

But, then comes the final ‘thump.’

“I must say, it’s always interesting watching them, after Clarence has worked his art. Watching them negotiate. The passage, from here to there. To the other side. Watching them try to make sense of it as they pass to that other place. I do like looking into their eyes as they try to make sense of it. I do. I do,” says Thigpen – staring into the lens at the viewer.

“And do they ever succeed?” asks Mrs Betjeman, clearly frightened.

“How would I know?” asks Thigpen. “I’m only watching.”

Isn’t that what we’re doing right here? Trying to make sense of it, having watched the film from beginning to end? Of course it is, and with The Coen Brothers work in particular, this is an ongoing endeavour. So, what we have here is an anthology film that seems to be designed to answer years of audiences trying to make sense – to negotiate – the passage of these films. That The Coen Brothers won’t play another man’s hand; that these searing indictments of American culture (gun violence; the death penalty; reality entertainment; the privilege of youth; the fear of male violence) and of white patriarchy exist within their work; and that this is all born from a love of stories, and a desire to see ourselves in those stories, of which we cannot get enough…

Continue reading, over on Channillo: Feminist Flicker.

Channillo is a subscription literature platform that is home to hundreds of series in multiple genres. Feminist Flicker is a fortnightly column by Sarah Myles – now in its fifth year of publication – which decodes sexism in movies by analysing one film at a time. You can read Feminist Flicker for free, with a 30-day free trial membership.

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