These two sardonic moralists succeed in inhabiting each extreme in equal proportion, blending and reshaping familiar narratives as only they can.
Fascinated by the sordid underside of human behavior, the Coen Brothers are often accused of nihilism, an indictment that isn’t without merit, and which never feels more warranted than in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Chronicling six short tales against pointedly artificial Western settings, the film twists the region’s grand foundational myths into a knotted scrum of scoundrels, swindlers and shit-talkers, each scrabbling over the other for personal advancement. On the surface, these morbid parables often seem pointless and needlessly cruel, lacking even the lucid ethical imperative they usually impose upon their floridly-scripted anti-noirs. Yet on closer inspection, the series of sketches really reveals the deeper Judaic tradition they’ve been increasingly tapped into, as the vigorous endorsement of community is suffused by the corrupting gloom of our contemporary social circumstances.
What results is an incredibly rich movie, even if it’s a sometimes unpleasant one, abandoning most of the crackerjack buoyancy the Coens employ to stretch their moral fables to a bearable feature-length experience. The shape of these stories recalls the frigid, shtetl-set opening of A Serious Man, which along with Inside Llewyn Davis, feels like this film’s spiritual counterpart. In both cases, as in many others, a familiar historical context is positioned contrapuntally against our own modern reality. As in those narratives, there’s a gradual movement from fading light to complete darkness, along with an accompanying transition in the gravity with which death is handled, as well as the bodies which it leaves behind.
As stated in Ecclesiastes, a philosophical rumination on futility that could have easily inspired much of the action here, “there’s nothing new under the sun.” Each scenario represents the mid-19th century compared pointedly with our own, while also applying a thick sheen of fictionality and genre play, classicism interlaced with winking revisionism. The segments are divided by bumpers featuring book pages flipped by an invisible hand, an intermittent touch of artificiality that also hearkens back to classic Hollywood technique for suggesting literary merit. The film starts with real shots of a basin dotted with majestic mesas, reminiscent of Monument Valley but shot in New Mexico, in starkly crisp digital photography. These broad landscapes cede to a jarring process shot of a character facing down the camera as he rides across the arid plain, heading from the barbarous wilds back into civilization.
This is the titular Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), a beaming, Roy Rogers-esque charmer with a penchant for fourth-wall intrusions and cold-blooded murder. Alternating between crooning and gunslinging, he’s a mash-up of Western tropes from all across the hero-villain spectrum; clad in all white, plastered with a constant grin that soon starts to look Satanic, he flounces about a dusty frontier town, his sunny disposition belying an effortless facility with death. That is, until a new man (dressed in black, also a sweet-voiced singer) comes around. The yin and yang fuse violently in the standard frame of a main-drag shooting duel, the two sides united in song as Buster ascends to heaven, harp in hand, this ridiculous image cementing the suspicion that we’ve just seen an extended “Looney Tunes” sketch on the nature of evil.
The second story furthers the farcical atmosphere, as a bank robber (James Franco) escapes hanging for a crime he committed—and survives a litany of misfortunes while still tied to his horse—only to be executed for one he did not. The third extends the ecclesiastical focus, zooming in on the inherent pointlessness of all human works, embodied by a limbless youth (Harry Melling) who performs dramatic recitations of biblical passages, great American speeches and, most tellingly, Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” which his lonely trunk can’t help but recall. Already cheapened via their use in the trawling of remote, barely-settled outposts for spare change, these great texts, and the boy’s skill at memorizing and reciting them, are eventually proven worthless by a chicken who can solve math equations.
In the fourth segment, the earth is presented in a lush, Edenic state, a virginal valley glen suddenly disturbed as an old prospector (Tom Waits) stumbles in through the brush. As he works, the grizzled protagonist is monitored by an observant owl, an apparent avatar of some watchful guardian spirit, whom he regards with a fair measure of respect, while also striking up a running conversation with the motherlode he’s sure lies just below the surface. Eventually striking it rich, he runs into violent difficulties that appear to offer a blood sacrifice in exchange for the gold, a rough sort of balance retained. Yet this is the sort of hacky, pat conclusion the Coens seem so loath to settle for, and with any scrutiny the outcome is revealed for what it actually is, the crass despoiling a landscape far more beautiful than the crumbs of shiny metal wrenched from beneath its surface.
Such subversion continues in “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” in which a straightforward romantic adventure bends sinister at the end. Two wagon masters, one shriveled and taciturn, the other still young and hopeful, are forced to safeguard a woman (Zoe Kazan) after her choleric brother expires midway to the Willamette Valley. The younger man (Bill Heck) is good-natured and helpful but also entirely feckless at actually aiding the woman, an inversion of the usual cowboy characteristics. The other is mechanically effective, so much so that he assures the doom of his young charge, who cannot comprehend the level of trickery he’s capable of attaining. The labors of the collective are prized, as in John Ford’s mythic renderings of similar terrain, but a sentimental conclusion is forsworn in favor of crushing, caustic realism.
Things come to a head in final section, a fusion of Stagecoach and Sartre’s No Exit that finds five travelers squabbling within the confines of a crowded overland conveyance. As the light drains from a sickly yellow and green color palette to a crepuscular midnight blue, we see intimations of doom creep into a rousing theological dispute. Pleas to stop the vehicle are ignored by the coachman, a faceless, hooded figure who may well be a stand-in for death, until the quintet arrives at a creepy, desolate hotel in the middle of nowhere. As in the first segment, two melodious singers are revealed as remorseless butchers, as a recognizable setting gets recontextualized by the sneaky shuffling of signifiers.
The ultimate lesson is vague and hard to pin down, but nonetheless identifiable beneath all this grim chaos; life moves mysteriously, often without meaning or catharsis, our daily trials leading to no special reward. To behave decently returns no prize greater than the satisfaction of doing so, along with the advancement of a collective whose benefits we may never personally enjoy. It’s a sorry state of affairs, felt more intensely with each successive insult to ethical conduct, but it’s the only one we’ve got. To once more quote Ecclesiastes: “the heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the fool’s heart is in the house of mirth.” Again utilizing mundane genre structures as space to spin some seriously dark stories, these two sardonic moralists succeed in inhabiting each extreme in equal proportion, blending and reshaping familiar narratives as only they can.