It’s interesting to see the critical reactions toward the release of any new Coen brothers movie. The comedies invariably get marked as “minor” while the dramas get marked as artistic masterpieces, the more depressing the better. When Hail, Caesar! was released—their last movie before The Ballad of Buster Scruggs—critics who liked it called it fluff, a minor Coens romp designed to tide us all over until their next “real” movie. And the critics who didn’t like it? They called it fluff and minor and not a real movie, too. Both sides were ignorant of the defense of art it made, the constant religious allegory (down to the title), all of it.
So it goes with their latest release, the anthology Western, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Premiering on Netflix seemingly timed to take advantage of the recent release of Rockstar Games’ beautiful and frustrating Red Dead Redemption 2, it is a movie that started out with baggage attached.
First, there was the Coens’ relationship with the Western to contend with. Their first movie, Blood Simple, is a Texas-set neo-noir. They’ve done adaptations both modern and period with No Country for Old Men and True Grit. The “wise cowboy” archetype—think Sam Elliot in The Big Lebowski or Alden Ehrenreich in Hail, Caesar!—appears in their work over and over. The spirit of the Western, rooted in how specifically American it is, is a touchstone they return to again and again, even in movies that have no obvious aesthetic connections to the genre.
Second, there was the misapprehension about what exactly The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was. Early, incorrect reports said it was going to be a television series. This wasn’t just a random guess: with the smash success of Noah Hawley’s hit TV series based on their Oscar-winning Fargo, it was easy to think the Coens might be ready to crack their knuckles and flex their muscles in the ring of prestige television themselves. Further, the Coens had always done singular movies, so something made up of multiple stories cried TV rather than anthology film to anyone who heard it.
Ultimately, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs defies both expectations. It is a collection of stories — but not a series — and it is more than a simple Western (though it is very much that, too). In terms of tone and incident it most closely resembles Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man. It works as a sort of deconstructionist’s deconstruction of the Western, using tropes at will while winking at them all the while. It delves deeply into ideas the Coens have touched on repeatedly, of creativity and the creative’s place in the world of entertainment, what the meaning of life is, and if it can be anything other than what we decide it to be. Even the framing of the movie, as a period Zane Grey-style Western short story collection, calls to mind both Fargo’s opening card that it was based on true events as well as Ethan Coen’s wonderful collection of short fiction, Gates of Eden.
The cast—from veteran Coen players like Stephen Root and Tim Blake Nelson, to newcomers like Zoe Kazan and Liam Neeson—do great work that is both unexpected and revealing. Tom Waits, in a segment that’s a hair shy of being a one-man play, is astounding. The costumes by Mary Zophres are perfect as is the music by long term Coen stalwart, Carter Burwell, who flits between folksiness, classic songs (and new ones that sound classic), and being grandly Western at a whim. It’s all great, and that’s without mentioning the cinematography. Bruno Delbonnel (who previously worked with the Coens on Inside Llewyn Davis) nails the “big sky” look that Westerns require, but also subtly changes that look for each story. It goes from being so brilliant it’s just this side of a matte painting for the first, to more realistic for the grounded tales in the middle, to Hammer-gothic for the final, ghostly story. It’s six movies’ worth of cinematography in two hours.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs feels both like a gateway and a thesis on the Coens’ body of work, containing bits of all their prior works. It has zany, broad, and morbid comedy, and tragic, ironic, and picaresque drama. There are references to old Hollywood, segments adapted from other sources (Jack London and Stewart Edward White, respectively), and a thread of black humor running through them all. If someone hate hate hated The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, I’d go so far as to say that the Coens aren’t for them—if none of the dishes at a smorgasbord appeal, don’t go to restaurants that specialize.
Each story is unique with themes that carry over—with the running theme of death looming large over the whole body of work—but jokes, references, and plot elements carry over as well. The stories also tend to mirror each other from the outside in, containing looks at both sides of the coin. Altogether they feel like a series of morbid O. Henry stories, informing and commenting on each other and surprising us at the end of each.
If that sounds enjoyable, then saddle up and settle in for a wild trip through the wild West.