This weekend, I fired up The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the new Western from the Coen Brothers. While a great film, it was an exhausting affair.
The film is an anthology, with six stories spread across the Wild West told over the course of the two-plus hour film. The stories are all unique and contain their own bits of dark humor and violently humanizing plot lines. Yet Buster Scruggs has a major flaw: For all the creativity that abounds in their latest venture, Joel and Ethan Coen could not have been more apathetic when it came to crafting their Native American characters. For that shortcoming, and for just how hard they failed, I’m not sure I can quite bring myself to forgive them.
Native characters appear onscreen just twice and have no dialogue—in a film that purports to depict the West as it was being colonized and stolen from tribal nations. They are mentioned several other times, usually when white characters invoke their names in trepidation, borne out of a fear of being set upon by the “savages.” When Native characters do appear, they serve as nothing more than confirmations of white fear. This isn’t anything new for the Coens—Native voices were equally absent from their 2010 take on the classic western True Grit despite the latter half of the film taking place in what’s described as “Indian territory.”
In Buster Scruggs’ second chapter, “Near Algodones,” a bank robber played by James Franco is set to be hanged by a sheriff and a group of men I assume are his deputies. Then, conveniently, a group of Comanche ride through and kill all of the lawmen, leaving Franco’s character with the noose still around his neck. They are not granted a single line of dialogue. They scream, they whoop, and they’re gone.
The Natives are not people. They are merely a force of nature, objects of violence to be thrown at a plot point that seems to spell the end for Franco’s thief. They are there to remind you they exist, that they are the harbingers of death, and that this is the West. To do otherwise would require plotting and character building, and with as many white characters as the Coens wanted to stuff into the 133 minutes Netflix allotted them, there is simply no time left.
This idea is displayed most literally during the penultimate chapter, “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” in which Zoe Kazan plays Alice Longabaugh, a young woman set to be married in Oregon. When she strays from the wagon train to play with her dog, a member of an unnamed tribe spots her and one of the white men tasked with protecting the wagon train’s occupants that’s come to save her. The wagon train security guard then speaks a dull set of lines meant to frighten and convince Longabaugh to kill herself should the Natives best him:
They catch you, it won’t be so good. After they take off every stitch of your clothes and have their way with you, they will stretch you out with a rawhide and then they’ll drive a stake the middle of your body into the ground and then they’ll do some other things and we can’t have that.
I’m sure that to some white audience members, this moment brought a heightened sense of tension. But what came next, regardless of the poetic conclusions assigned to the two white characters we’d now spent 20-odd minutes being instructed to identify with, was deflated for me, because the entire scene once again refused to provide any sort of human-adjacent emotional grounding to characters that amount to little more than sacks of flesh that holler and try to kill our protagonists.
The closest the entire film comes to expanding on a Native character’s story is in the final chapter, “The Mortal Remains.” A Native character is never shown on screen, but a white trapper tells four other white characters in a stagecoach of how he had a longstanding relationship with a Native woman. They could never understand each other, he says, but they were happy to have some company. And that’s that.
The Coens are obviously far from the first filmmakers to portray Native peoples only as a force of intimidation and raw violence. They are just the latest in a long line of offenders to ignore the beautiful, full-bodied stories of Native people adjusting to and grappling with the ills of Manifest Destiny, stories that are readily available to the directors and producers who care to tell them. Last year, Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River, while failing to capture the truth of life on the reservation, at least took the time to carefully acknowledge the stream of violence-without-justice incessantly inflicted upon Native American women. And Hostiles, a western starring Christian Bale and Cherokee actor Wes Studi, was lauded by Native groups across the country for the production team’s commitment to bringing in scholars to implement the now-rare Northern Cheyenne dialect. Even though both films maintained white leads and were imperfect final products, they felt like a conscious investment in the all-too-slim middle of the Venn Diagram for those who love both Native films and Westerns.
I suppose it was my fault for bringing any sense of hopefulness to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. But given my emotional connections to their past work, and the recent progress in the Western arena, I was hopeful nonetheless. Maybe it was asking too much to expect the Coens and Netflix to put forth the same effort as Sheridan or Hostiles director Scott Cooper, both white men. But at some point, this has got to change, and if one of the most powerful directing duos in all of Hollywood doesn’t feel the need to give a Native character a single line of dialogue in a damn Western film, why would anyone else?
Correction: The article initially stated the film is made up of seven stories, when it’s actually composed of an intro and six stories.