Cast: Tim Blake Nelson, Willie Watson, David Krumholtz, James Franco, Stephen Root, Ralph Ineson, Liam Neeson, Harry Melling, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck, Grainger Hines, Jackamoe Buzzell, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Jonjo O'Neill, Saul Rubinek, Chelcie Ross
Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Running time: 2 hours 13 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
A case could made that Joel and Ethan Coen are drawn to the western genre because it allows for the ultimate display of misanthropy. Tales of greed, revenge, loneliness, and brutal violence are key factors, as is the expansive vistas of America revealing death at nearly every turn. Though classic westerns often revel in the heroism of its grizzled heroes, the Coens have used such archetypes in order to plum the depths of cynical human behavior. Their debut, Blood Simple, couched western archetypes under the veneer of neo-noir atmosphere. Raising Arizona has the zany trappings of a stoner comedy, but with the widescreen Midwestern landscapes of a romanticized western. True Grit is actually a pure homage to John Ford and Howard Hawks which uses its status a remake to recontextualize western mythos. No Country for Old Men is a brilliantly pensive adaptation of Cormac McCarthy which views Modern America as more ruthless than the old west. And so on it goes. The Coens have always been fascinated by the ways in which the genre can speak to the fatalistic nature of our miserable existence, and their latest shaggy-dog anthology, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, is no exception.
Structured around six separate stories, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs refuses the revisionist angle, instead leaning into western tropes as a means for folkloric retellings. Though tonally divergent and varying in length, each vignette essentially hammers home the Coens career methodology; i.e. that human kind are a distrustful lot who will stab you in the back if given the chance. The universe is cruel, chaotic, and unforgiving, and though there are innocent souls wandering about, they are not immune to the marching tides of fate. In fact, death may even come for them sooner.
The idea of humanity as a scourge is given an ironic wink in the first story, where Tim Blake Nelson plays the guitar-playing, crooning gunslinger of the film’s title. Wandering into town while delivering deadpan monologues to the camera with mentions of nicknames such as “The Misanthrope”, the Coens lean into their silly, parodic side with quippy banter and extreme violence. It’s a 20 minute lark; funny and irreverent, but also oddly impersonal; with a washed-out visual look and fake-looking digital blood. In the second section, James Franco and Stephen Root show up for a slapstick joint about a bank robber with terrible luck, filmed like a Sergio Leone western and ending with a darkly ironic final line. It’s an effective short film, playing like a Twilight Zone-styled yarn, but much like the first story, there isn’t much here beyond a clever punchline.
Probably the most fascinating vignette is the third one where an armless, legless actor (Harry Melling) and his crotchety boss (Liam Neeson), travel the countryside in search of fame and fortune. Here, the Coens marry their patented solipsism with heartbreaking melancholy; resulting in something which resists easy classification, even if the ending is predictably nihilistic. From there, we get a disheveled Tom Waits as a gold prospector digging holes in search of gold, Zoe Kazan as a wide-eyed young woman in a caravan en route to Oregon, and finally, a pair of travelers stuck in a carriage (among them Tyne Daly and Brendan Gleeson) which plays almost like an Edgar Allen Poe short story. Since all of the tales set up characters with hopes or dreams (however fleeting) only to have them dashed through bursts of violence or twists of fate, there isn’t much emotional investment. Even the lone drawn-out section in which Kazan’s innocent traveler seeks a better life in Oregon is predicated on the same ironic climax, so the sense of richer world-building here feels even more perfunctory.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a hymn to the western in which death pervades every corner of the frame; sometimes in the form of a comical visual gag, sometimes under the guise of pathos for souls too kindly for this sadistic world. However skillfully conceived and wonderfully acted, this homage to western folklore, like most campfire stories, inevitably fizzles out into darkness of night. If the Coens are correct; that all of us are grasping for meaning in a meaningless existence predicated upon chance, then what is the point of storytelling in the first place? This is a question The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, much like Nelson’s wise-cracking titular wanderer, has no interest in. He’s more likely to shrug, laugh it off, and blow someone’s brains out.