I never thought I would ask that question. But I’m getting close. I’m a grouchy feminist, and I’m not sorry. You can be a great artist and have no interest in women, but I don’t have to revere you anymore if that’s your deal.
The last Coen film I saw in theaters was Inside Llewyn Davis in 2013, and I absolutely loved it. I even felt indignant on its behalf when it got mostly ignored at awards season. I haven’t seen every movie the Coens have ever made, but ever since experiencing No Country For Old Men on the big screen, I’ve been fairly well in the bag for these guys. Anything they make, I’ll see it. So when The Ballad of Buster Scruggs came out on Netflix not too long ago, my husband and I sat down to watch it, as I knew we eventually would. It’s not exactly a conventional feature film; it’s a “feature-length omnibus” consisting of six vignettes, all dealing in some way with the trope of the American frontier. It’s at times violent, often funny in that bleak Coen way, and occasionally thoughtful and deep. Racist on one or two occasions, too, but in a way that’s probably meant to be honest to the era. It features plenty of trademark Coen-Brothers dialogue and even more plenty of grizzled old white men. Including my old buddy James Franco, who gets artificially grizzled for his bank-robber role. As Sarah Aswell writes for Forbes, “the Western story arc is delightfully scrambled, and characters are given the depth, reflection, and thoughtfulness that they lacked in the black-and-white shoot-em-ups. Or–at least the white male characters are.”
Two women make the official cast list of Buster Scruggs: Zoe Kazan and Tyne Daly (there are a handful of female extras here and there, but none with more than one line to speak). Kazan actually saved the movie for me; I was just about ready to turn it off before she appeared in the penultimate vignette, “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” Tyne Daly, then, delivers one of the best performances via almost exclusively face-acting that I have ever witnessed in “The Mortal Remains.” The two of them allowed me to finish the film feeling…mixed but not entirely hopeless. Later on, though, I couldn’t shake the deep disappointment. It wasn’t just Buster Scruggs; it was the realization that the Coens have never been that interested in women’s stories. The occasional woman in a man’s story, sure. As Aswell rightly points out, “[the Coens] have also brought a parade of strong and interesting female characters to the big screen during their careers, Mattie Ross in True Grit, Penny Wharvey-McGill in Oh Brother, Carla Jean Moss in No Country For Old Men, and Katie Cox in Burn After Reading. Most notably, Maude Lebowski is unforgettable in The Big Lebowski and Marge Gunderson in Fargo is simply one of the best movie characters in history.” But does any of those women speak to another woman in any of those films? I mean, I hate to trot out the Bechdel test, but it’s not hard to pass (too easy to pass, many people say) and I don’t know that the Coens have ever passed it.
I don’t need all art to be focused on women. That’s not what I’m trying to say here. Not everyone has to be interested in telling women’s stories, and if anyone has earned the right to do whatever the fuck they want, it’s probably Ethan and Joel Coen, whose very words I quoted at the end of my Dante translation rant the other day. But that’s kind of it, right there - they can do whatever they want. They have a following, they have an audience, they have respect, and they have anyone and everyone throwing money at them for weird projects like Buster Scruggs, just because of who they are and what they’ve built. Netflix keeps its financials fairly well buttoned up, but the film’s stunning visuals can’t have come cheaply, especially given the extensive wagon-train shots in “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” I wish the Coens wanted to work from their elevated position to make something, anything, featuring women - not a woman - whose role extends beyond their participation in a male-driven story. They don’t have to, of course. I just wish they wanted to. As it is, though, I am starting to look back on decades of great work that they’ve done as a long, slow, and never-ending demonstration that they don’t.
David Simon, since making The Wire, can do pretty much anything he wants, and he has chosen to make The Deuce, which as I have argued, cares far more about its women than its men. And he’s not doing it out of altruism or because he feels like he should; he’s doing it because that story is interesting to him. He wants to depict that world, and the characters he has created are compelling and important to him. This grouchy feminist could use more excellent media that genuinely wants these same things.