Death has always been a punchline for Joel and Ethan Coen. Its suddenness, its finality, its nihilistic impartiality—these anxieties have flooded their films since their very first, 1984’s Blood Simple, a neo-noir about murderous vengeance horribly spiraling out of control. Over the years they’ve perfected the art of onscreen death, and many of their most memorable moments involve sudden, unexpected violence: the woodchipper reveal in Fargo (1996); the bolt pistol murders in No Country for Old Men (2007); the Brad Pitt closet discovery in Burn After Reading (2008). Even The Ladykillers (2004)—a remake of the Ealing Studios classic and arguably their only true directorial misfire—appreciated death as a nearly conscious force, dooming its criminal cast to ignoble and hilariously untimely demises. Of all their films, it’s their latest, the Netflix-financed anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, to be their first explicitly about it, turning their favorite subtext into the text itself.
Featuring six short films written by the Coens over the last twenty-five years—and according to the NYFF press conference, presented in roughly chronological order of their writing—they center on the inescapability of death as examined through the lens of the American Western, specifically the Westerns the brothers grew up with as children: the hyper-romanticized white-hat/black-hat studio Westerns of the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Confident in the righteousness of Manifest Destiny and entrenched in Old Testament morality, these films eschewed historical realism in favor of cultural parables about justice, honor, and the necessity of (white) civilization. Through them, America largely defined itself as a distinct cultural entity during an era when widespread industrialization and incensed nationalism led to periodic wars across Europe and Asia: we were tough, resourceful, brave, and individualistic, full of the common sense and can-do know-how our ancestors across the Atlantic had long since lost. Unlike their Revisionist forefathers (Peckinpah, Leone, Eastwood et all) the Coens aren’t particularly interested in interrogating these myopic ideas—they’re taken largely for granted at face value. Instead they pick apart individual aspects of the larger myth of the Old West, using what scraps they find for their own smirking purposes.
With exception of the very first short, of course. Written way back in the late 90s, the opening short, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, dissects one of the more tragically forgotten early archetypes of the American Western: the singing cowboy. Back before John Ford and Cecil B. DeMille elevated the genre from pulp pablum to legitimate pop-art with their 1939 hits Stagecoach and Union Pacific, many of the most popular Westerns featured clean-cut, smiling do-gooders like Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and yes, John Wayne, who were quick with a gun but quicker with a song. They’d ride into town on horseback with a guitar or harmonica, right wrongs, and chastely woo the local cowgirl or schoolmarm before moseying off into the sunset. Now the Coens have given popular culture perhaps its first authentic singing cowboy nearly eighty years after the sub-genre’s heyday—Tim Blake Nelson as the eponymous Buster, a perpetually chipper and earnestly polite songbird who just so happens to also be an unstoppable death machine more ruthless and terrifying than their own Anton Chigurh.
To disclose more of the plot would be robbing the film of its fun. During the aforementioned NYFF press conference, the Coens explained that their primary writing influence for the film was Rod Serling, the hyper-prolific television screenwriter and mastermind behind the original Twilight Zone series. Serling’s screenplays frequently featured unpredictable twists and surprise endings, and the Coens have followed suit, particularly in this first segment where they seem to deliberately try to catch the audience off-guard every few minutes. Suffice to say this short is easily the most howlingly, screamingly funny thing the Coens have ever directed, more than the panty-headed chase in Raising Arizona (1987), more than all the you-betcha’s in Fargo, more than the “would that it were so simple” sequence in Hail, Caesar! (2016).
The film peaks with this first segment, but it serves the important purpose of putting the audience off their guard for the remaining five parts, making them incapable of guessing their mood or tone. Will the funny ones remain funny or end tragically? Will the heart-warming ones end in sudden paroxysms of gore? It’s impossible to know, and that’s what keeps the film fresh even as the segments dip and rise in quality.
Not that any of the segments are bad but some are more memorable than others, the next two sticking more sharply into the mind then the last three. The second sequence Near Algodones about a perpetually unlucky bank robber played by James Franco is a superb slapstick tragedy with perhaps the best Coen one-liner in nearly two decades: “First time?” Meanwhile the third, Meal Ticket, an achingly sad story about a limbless actor and his greedy, depressed impresario, demonstrates the finest of the Coens’ philosophical resignation towards an uncaring cosmos, the kind they articulated the most powerfully in No Country and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013).
The next two trade comedy and tragedy in equal measure, eschewing the spontaneity of the first two and the suffocating heaviness of the third for more traditionally told (and tonally consistent) narratives. It’s here we remember the film originated as a television series the Coens later chose to truncate, as they both feel like self-contained stories instead of stream-of-consciousness shorts. The fourth, All Gold Canyon, is the film’s one concession to optimism as it watches a kind-hearted prospector played by gravely-voiced singer Tom Waits find his fortune in them yonder hills despite the predations of a cowardly claim-jumper. The fifth and longest short, The Gal Who Got Rattled, follows the wagon train romance between a promised bride-to-be and a friendly wagon-master that at times feels copy-pasted from an old Hallmark made-for-TV movie, right down to the woman’s rascally, adorable pet Russell Terrier. Yet it’s also perhaps the most devious of the six shorts, as it lulls the audience into a morphined state of complacency before swerving into a last-minute twist so shocking it would give O. Henry pause.
The final short, The Mortal Remains, follows a number of eccentric characters trapped in a stygian stagecoach ride to a mysterious hotel. More epilogue than anything, it caps off the movie by uniting all the tonal and philosophical threads into a final denouement that swaps the traditional trappings of the Western for Gothic horror. It’s a brave, unexpected choice for the Coens’ bravest, most unexpected film in years. The one complaint to be made is that, among the six shorts, this last is the most dialogue heavy and liberally features barely decipherable marble-mouthed musings from Chelcie Ross as a mountain trapper and Saul Rubinek as an effete Frenchman. If you watch the film in a theater with a bad sound system or on a home computer without headphones, a good 40% of the short will be impossible to understand.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is every classic Hollywood Western as it’s no classic Hollywood Western, much as it’s every Coen Brothers film while it’s no Coen Brothers film. Distilling the finest and most absurd tenants of the Western genre and the most indulgent concessions to the Coens’ idiosyncratic filmmaking yet, the film is not just the most essential film in the brothers’ catalogue since No Country, it might be the most important Western since Quentin Tarantino’s slave-revenge fantasy Django Unchained (2012).
A final note, then, about the film’s depiction of Native Americans. The Coens have regularly been accused of shortsightedness on the matter of racial representation in American cinema, most famously during an interview following the release of Hail, Caesar! where Joel responded to a question about proactively pursuing more racially inclusive stories with the tone-deaf answer “You don’t sit down and write a story and say, ‘I’m going to write a story that involves four black people, three Jews, and a dog’ — right? That’s not how stories get written.” The Ballad of Buster Scruggs fails to help their case. Only two segments feature Native Americans, but they both depict them as bloodthirsty savages, first in Near Algodones as scalp-hungry monsters and second in The Girl Who Got Rattled as amoral killing machines who prey on innocent travelers. I’ve heard some fellow critics argue that these depictions aren’t just excusable but downright necessary as they reflect the racial insensitivity of classic studio Westerns. Perhaps. But if they were willing to lampoon the singing cowboy trope in the first segment, why couldn’t they officially comment on traditional depictions of Native Americans? Many critics are so eager to appreciate Buster Scruggs first and foremost as a Coen Brothers film they forget it’s part of a genre long used to dehumanize a persecuted ethnic minority. But these questions require more input and insight than I as a white male critic can give. Let’s not overlook these voices as we examine this otherwise astonishing film.
This is a reprint from the 2018 New York Film Festival.