At times, the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs feels like a mere Western jukebox: six variations on America’s central mythologies, a film content only to revisit cinema’s past glories rather than conjuring a tangled, intersubjective dialogue between various visions of the West and the imaginative clout it has held throughout time. But even at their most reverential – and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is ultimately more of a hat-tip to the West than a screed – the writer-directors never treat the mythos as pure chapter-and-verse. In moving between cruel, cutthroat, mordant, and elegiac ruminations on the most American of genres, they tackle various flavors of the American experiment, from the wonderfully impious to the truly haunted to the downright nihilistic. While each of this omnibus’ six short tales is more a sketch than a story, they each refine a moral perspective on the West that is more complicated, and far messier, than the Coens’ more literal Western thus far, 2010’s somewhat depressingly straight-laced True Grit. While that earlier film was a skilled retread, a taxidermy of Western tropes curated for our pleasure, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs actually seems to have a perspective – many, in fact – on the genre.
Another way of putting it is that, while True Grit was a sensible imitation – garbed in the finest spurs it could don – The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a meditation, frequently a grave one, that more self-consciously affects various Western guises and outfits only to unbutton them. Some of this is purely schematic – if you have six chances, you’re more likely to create a Western prism, a polyphonic impression of competing and sometimes contradictory visions rather than one more foundational notion of the “West”. But that doesn’t make it any less evocative. While the Coens have always been distinct American moralists, brandishing a mixture of godless heresy and fire-and-brimstone puritanism in the spirit of Mark Twain, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs practically wears its fictive, fabulistic qualities on its sleeve, conjuring a half-dozen parables of loners, cutthroats, and miscreants trying to survive within, and usually falling prey to, the American experience.
Extinguishing any solemnity (and then finding the sublime in the ridiculous) with the introductory and titular (and best) tale, the film begins with a staggering, terrifyingly absurdist short comedy stalked by sudden, every-one-for-themselves brutality. Starring Tim Blake Nelson as the titular character of the film, a gun-and-guitar slinging outlaw with a comic ethos in a Bugs Bunny modality, the sequence is nothing less than the Coen’s moral treatise on the necessity and unfortunate virtue (for them at least) of nihilism. Drawing its manna from Tex Avery as much as the more expected John Ford, the sequence is the most deliciously impious work they’ve done in a decade, a natural extension and perfection of the Hobie Doyle sections of Hail Caesar. Although they’ve never been the wild child’s or the bad seed’s some critics make them out to be – their films are too concerned with notions of guilt and doubt to truly make a mockery of the social status quo – The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ opening cuts through high-and-mighty good-cheer with a heathenish, heretical glee.
The first segment is also the most absurd, and most choreographed, of the episodes, before the film abdicates that throne, passing through a more minor comedy in the second episode starring James Franco as an Eastwoodian Man With No Name. “Near Algodones” turns around a truly droll final punchline, and explores the constitutive cyclicality of the West, the supposed sense of fluidity which defines America (where one can supposedly rise or fall in status at a moment’s notice, unmoored from the stability of aristocracy) reframed as a mask for a kind of predetermined fatalism. In a world where everyone is a trickster out only for themselves, the short suggests, momentary successes are set-ups for harder falls, and the most serendipitous of escapes are only catalysts for even crueler and more delusional deaths. You might pull yourself up by your bootstraps, but the sheer pitilessness and arbitrary quality of life itself will just end up hanging you on them.
As the stories deepen, they continue to expose various facets of Americana – the cruel siren song of the seemingly endless land, the punishing dualities of individualism – to various temperatures, both giddy and desperate. Orphaned in the middle of the six stories are the two tone poems, far more elegiac in their meditations and ultimately humorous in the most subdued, caustic sense of the term. “Meal Ticket,” starring Liam Neeson and Harry Melling as a travelling showman and his armless, legless storyteller, ghoulishly turns its eye on the callous performative-ness of the vision of nomadism so central to the Western lore, exposing movement West as less an escape from domestication than an embodiment of the abominable heart of showman’s capitalism: entrepreneurism as a severe and barbaric fable of loneliness.
Lightening the load from that dark-hearted tale is the luminescent “All Gold Canyon,” in which Bruno Delbonnel’s glorious cinematography radiates the imaginative flip-side of American nomadism, a sublime lyricism undercut but a poetic irony. Using a Jack London story as a conduit for a study in American transcendentalism, this is the only remotely optimistic tale, the only moral center and the only story with any real sympathy for the American ethos of motility and individuality. Or, more accurately, the only paean to the kind of unsettled, adventurous wandering which, in the other segments, functions merely as a delusory mirage hiding how cruel the social fabric really is, how constrained America actually is beneath its costume of individual freedom and fluidity. But in this one parable of personal commitment starring Tom Waits as a prospector hunting for gold in a river, the Coens lightly tease out the semi-arbitrary qualities of success and death in the West while still tipping their hat to the spirit of personal freedom that formed the backbone of so much Western fiction.
Closing with the two longest segments, the Coens then turn to the most conventionally (i.e. “narratively”) complete tale, “The Girl who Got Rattled,” which bears imaginative kinship with the works of Kelly Reichardt, another modern Western interpreter, and not only in the casting of Zoe Kazan as a fragile but determined wagon-train participant on an abominable path to hopeful but perennially deferred survival. In this, the most psychologically-rooted tale, and perhaps one which might benefit from either feature-film status or the short but definitely untidy elegance of the other episodes, the Coens truly explore the harsh expanse of the West as a physical space, and as a space of the mind. After the ineffable beauty and expansive headspace around “All Gold Canyon”, the only story where the sense of American possibility seems to genuinely loom large around a not-so-doomed adventurer, this sequence is infused with the neurotic nefariousness of Victor Sjostrom’s demented, dejected 1928 Western The Wind.
After five fairly thoughtful variations on classical Western tropes in modes ranging from deranged screwball comedy to ghostly quasi-horror story, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs then hems its physical environ in as tight as can be – a stagecoach – while perhaps exploring its widest, most capacious imaginative canvas yet. The most openly metaphysical of the tales, “The Mortal Remains” is an allegory of final acceptance after various meditations on loneliness and death. In its despondent sense of terminality unleavened by joy, “The Mortal Remains” is the practical inverse of the first story’s farcical wickedness. After trying to brawl with the possibility and likelihood of death itself in several of the tales, the Coens extinguish any more noble sensibilities, or even moral architecture, here. In this final tale, they simply confront us with the fact of finality, asking us how we react to five figures, played by Brendan Gleeson, Chelcie Ross, Tyne Daly, Saul Rubinek, and Jonjo O’ Neill, in search of an exit from their stagecoach and finding a most different point of egress, a final departure to the unknown.
Confronting the uncertain, of course, has long been a key question in the American lexicon, a blessing and curse of our distinctly individualistic national ethos and rhetorical emphasis on fluidity that disrupts static types. The Coens, throughout their career, have been distinct chroniclers of this unknown, and of the sometimes tenuous, unseen relationships with connect us. But they’ve also been prophets of the rapture, braiding bleak-hearted humor with cynical visions, unsheathing the more brutal elements of America, exposing the selective sanitization of the Western (usually in the form of unearned moral certainty) to the rusty air of catastrophe which it tries to protect against. Which is perhaps why the Coens ask their protagonists not to shield their souls from truth by donning costumes of moral certainty but to take seriously encounters with the unknown, to expose themselves to new systems of meaning and thought lest their prefabricated identities, be it Buster’s stupefyingly lizard-like optimism or the dumbfounded gung-ho certainty of Franco’s Cowboy, fail them.
In other words, this film is filled with characters who embody a mythic costume of “Americana”, characters who seem to exorcise their humanity by transforming themselves into iconographic visions of the West, totems which strive to embody the entire warp and woof of the American fabric. In this sense, Ballad of Buster Scruggs is the Coens’ audit of these American myths, types, and icons, a portrait of hope haunted by the shadows of the uncertain truths these figures (the titular one most of all) must occlude in order for their self-authoring visions to guide them. Many of the characters proffer tales of trial and tribulation, curating stories which aggrandize themselves directly (Buster) or indirectly (Neeson’s entrepreneur).
Or, more politically, we could turn to the wagon-train neophytes in “The Girl Who Got Rattled,” who believe in their dog, President Pierce, named after a pro-slavery President who hawkishly expanded out Westward. The name is a tell for the moral vision here: beneath romantic visions of personal success in the West, these men and women are pawns of a settler-colonialist prophet of Manifest Destiny who commanded men and women like them to civilize the West without exposing to them how murderous and barbarous their own civilization could be. Or how it doomed them as the foot-soldiers of civilization as well. Each of these characters meticulously conjures an identity out of types and costumes they find by the wayside of American lore. The Coens, in their warped, knowing curiosity, coerce these characters to see the abyssal uncertainty hidden in their visions of self, to confront what they don’t know, what their archetypal identities don’t allow them to see, and asks them to either consider this fluidity seriously or fall prey to the conservative ethos of overextending one’s assurance into the unearned tyranny of certainty.
Despite this being their most chameleonic offering, then, the Coens don’t sacrifice a cohesive moral perspective. They close with both a repeat and inverse of Buster Scruggs’ practical attitude toward life (and death) itself. When we finish the film, multiple characters suddenly stare the unknown right in the face, left with no choice but a prophetic leap into what may be the only option left for them. Buster Scruggs blissfully rejoices in the cyclical spirit of temporary, archetypal success as a renowned singing gunslinger followed by death by his anointed replacement – accepting, as it were, that his archetype exceeds him, that he can’t do anything about others wanting to become him. But the final story sets us in a stagecoach with five ostensible stock-types and asks us to observe if they can exceed their archetypal qualities, whether they can reckon with and debate their situation in ways which cannot be codified or curated or prefigured beforehand.
If Buster Scruggs, the wider film, begins with “Buster Scruggs,” a comic travesty about the harshness of the end times, it concludes with a gravid poem about what may come after. In doing so, the film mocks our projective models and archetypes of morality and identity (the singing cowboy, the gold searcher, the storyteller, the noble, untrained ingénue from back out East) as false orienting fictions while still locating in them a mosaic of self-critical Americana. Which is to say: insofar as the characters in the final segment are finally able to reflect on their own identities, to think-through the unknown which lies not only outside them but within them, the film intimates a capacity for genuine human self-critique and self-reconsideration that the Coens elsewhere fascinatingly suggest may be a ruse all along.