Structured like a series of colourful yarns told ’round the campfire, the Coens paint a deceptively bleak portrait of the American frontier in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, one that reflexively builds on the conventions of the genre to weave a more nihilistic worldview around its center.
Initially (and inaccurately) reported to be the Coens first foray into television production, the anthology film sees them collect 25 years of Old West short stories they co-authored, orbiting the brothers’ fertile thematic grounds of unavailing death, malfeasance and struggles against fate into a semi-coherent, Western pastiche of utter human misfortune. Replete with the Coen staples of tonal-balancing black humor and a brilliantly directed cast of distinct personalities, the film continues the directing duo’s trend of subverting this particular genre, finding revisionist company in No Country for Old Men and True Grit but without the graveness of those titles.
Buster Scruggs finds a way to bridge the jocular nostalgia of a Hawks Western with the sobering realities of an Eastwood joint in an impressive feat of tonal flip-flopping. Using the framing device of short story collection containing its segments, the film leafs through six vastly different chapters of death and woe that are thinly connected by their shared disregard for mortality.
The first and namesake, “Ballad of Buster Scruggs,“ sees the Coens humorously dig at the singing-cowboy subgenre they previously parodied in Hail, Caesar! with an utterly charming Tim Blake Nelson serenading us as he mercilessly guns down all in his path. The segment carries a knowing artificial pristineness to its absurdity as the film’s most self-aware and straightly comedic chapter. As a way to unseat the audience’s expectations, the short’s combination of brutal gun violence with farcical (and catchy) musical numbers prepares them for what is in store.
Followed immediately is the plain-sailing tale of a bank robbery gone awry in “Near Algodones,” where a slick bandit played by James Franco takes on a resourceful bank teller played by Stephen Root in the middle of nowhere. Although still brimming with an almost parodic humor style, the segment departs significantly from the ostentatious opening act into a more self-serious temper that will progressively darken in the shorts that follow.
The next two, “Meal Ticket” and “All Gold Canyon,” feature some of the film’s most striking photography courtesy of Inside Llewyn Davis collaborator, Bruno Delbonnel. His moody, washed vistas complement the desperate panhandling of Liam Neeson and Harry Melling in the former, and his picturesque pastorals accompany the lonesome ambition of a prospector (Tom Waits) in the latter, which is about where the Buster Scruggs hits a snag.
It becomes clear with these two that the film is rather disproportionate. Even though the Coens stand by their claim that the film was always intended to be a coherent feature, there are times when convincing you that Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a reconfigured television series would be pretty easy to do.
The melancholic midpoint, represented by “Meal Ticket” and “All Gold Canyon,” are both minimalist and inactive tales, which are light on dialogue but add a lot of ascetic weight to the center and throw the film off tonally. Granted, this was the film’s aim, but it feels like a re-ordering of segments could have cleared up this cumbersome middle.
The film ends on a strong, dour note with “The Gal Who Got Rattled” and “The Mortal Remains,” which stabilize the rambunctious opener with a pensive, ambiguous closer. The former is a clinical dashing of hope for one desultory bride-to-be on The Oregon Trail (played by a brilliant Zoe Kazan) while the latter is an ensemble piece of colorful characters (Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, etc.) sharing a mysterious stagecoach together. Here is where the Coens solidify their view of the hopelessness of the frontier in these two gloomy numbers, aided a lot by their respective casts and ending the film on a nihilistic note, which puts the previous films into context.
I hesitate to call The Ballad of Buster Scruggs a mixed-bag because of the negative connotations, but that is absolutely what it strives to be. Each of its segments has something pronounced to offer, and their compiling creates this fluctuating vision of the Old West that is sometimes wistful but always merciless.
All will walk away with their favorite; personally, I never shook off the dulcet tones of Tim Blake Nelson in the opener, but few could deny the genre-subverting Western its place among the Coens’ more eclectic and engaging features.