The Ballad of Buster Scruggs Is as Open and Thrilling as the Old West

Ah, the Old West—where, as American movies have been hell-bent on telling us for over a century, chaos reigns until it doesnt, opportunity is abundant until it isnt, and freedom and liberty are the name of the game until some force of God or government tramples them. The West: where, as the titular misanthrope of Joel and Ethan Coens new Netflix Original, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, tells us, “the distances are great, and the scenery monotonous.”

In other words, anything you strive for can happen here; feel free to project at will. Which is one reason the West is so foundational to Americas myths of self-starting, national community, and perseverance. But as the genre frequently teaches us—and as Buster Scruggs damningly reiterates—this shouldnt imply that you control your own fate. Anything can happen, its true. But so can the reverse.

Twists of fate and reversals of fortune are the dialectics at the heart of so many of our most enduring parables. If anyone in American movies knows this, its the Coen brothers, whose films frequently traffic in the forces just beyond their characters grasps—and whove sometimes accordingly gotten a reputation for cruelty. Im happy to report that Buster Scruggs will only reinforce this reputation while, like the brunt of their work, also dutifully proving it wrong.

Which is not to suggest that this new film is more of the same. To begin, it isnt a single narrative, but a fleet-footed anthology of miniature ones—each with its own cast, its own themes, its own style and tone. Its a collection of short stories, in other words, and from the start, the Coens take the artifice of that construction pretty literally. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs first appears to us as a leather-bound volume, a dusty artifact full of tall tales and filled with colorplates, all of it flush with the high-toned syntax of American mythmaking. The stories therein, which are each about 15 minutes long, were once rumored to be episodes in a miniseries; watching them back-to-back, as the movie encourages, makes that hard to imagine. Each of these stories is armed with its own internal rhymes and ricocheting network of ideas, and all of them are in conversation.

Take the titular opener: an overture, of sorts, in which a fabulously weak-shouldered Tim Blake Nelson plays the happy-go-lucky outlaw Buster Scruggs, an unlikely assassin if I ever saw one. Proving that impression hilariously wrong is but one purpose of this story; the real intent, we eventually realize, is to serve up every theme that the films five ensuing tales will continue to explore, from the political utility of language to the value of reputation and the inevitability of death. Lets double-underline that last part: each of these stories is, in some way, about death.

That would be a spoiler, if the Coens were in any way prone to being straightforward in their ideas. But their vision here is, as is frequently the case, equal parts bemusing and vicious. And the values put into motion by their characters are whats at the heart of each of these studies, more so than even the characters themselves.

That fine line isnt always easy to tease out, which is half the fun of the enterprise. The stories themselves are exciting, too. In the second, “Near Algodones,” a cowboy played by James Franco meets his match in the old-timey banker he tries to rob—that is, until its clear that his real match is his own fate, and the twists of nature and country that both sustain and destroy him. (Its funnier than it sounds.) In “Meal Ticket,” Liam Neeson plays backwoods impresario to an armless, legless orator (Harry Melling), whose virtuous renditions of “Ozymandias” and “The Gettysburg Address” eventually fail to draw a crowd—and suffer the fate of all underperforming entertainment in a modernizing world. This story, in particular, feels personal.

So does “All Gold Canyon,” in which the ever-sonorous (even when he isnt singing!) Tom Waits plays a prospector, defacing nature to dig for gold and going toe-to-toe with his own comeuppance. “The Gal Who Got Rattled” is the most pleasurably ironic tale in the bunch, starring Zoe Kazan as Alice Longabaugh, a woman traveling the Oregon Trail who finds herself in dire straits after her brother, who arranged her marriage prospects, dies. Billy Knapp, played by Bill Heck, has a solution in mind—and so does the chaotic, unpredictable West. And after that, all thats left is the final story, “The Mortal Remains,” in which the Coens risk putting too fine a bow on what came before, while also revealing their endgame in its all-consuming mystery.

Youll be tempted to pick favorites. But the real pleasure here is in watching ideas unfold across and between these stories. The Wests mix of possibility and inevitability seems to attract the Coens. The Western is a genre with a built-in repertoire of vast horizons, gold, and promises of marriage: in a word, possibility. But its also an opportunity to explore the latent frustrations of chaos and, tellingly, order. The Coens take advantage of this from the very opening story, where those promises ring out with a supreme hollowness—a literal hollowness, wherein sounds we hear, from gunshots to the neighing of Buster Scruggss steed, seem to travel throughout the film as if through empty space.

At times, Buster Scruggs seems to have the earnest purity of folklore, something Tim Blake Nelsons opening jaunt plays with while simultaneously throwing it into question. The entire endeavor is rife with the wacky gamesmanship of satire, in other words—but the Coens never merely ridicule their sources, preferring, it seems, to find pleasure in the tension between revival and ridicule. Even the choice of Native American representation here flirts with the problematic representation thats marred this genre from the start. On one hand, the Native presence in Buster Scruggs is pointedly blank; they appear only in fits of violence, per usual in tales of this kind. On the other, those outbursts are indeed a force of nature—a force of the land that keeps white American optimism firmly, knowingly in check. Its to the movies enduring credit that so much of what goes wrong here feels tragically just.

Since first watching it at the New York Film Festival last month, Ive seen Buster Scruggs described as a political film—and also as a histrionic, reactionary nostalgia trip. The Coens have always inspired fervent intellectual denouncement, but that last part I wont entertain. Theyre a little too cool and coy to be histrionic, their images and attitudes too sharp, too bloodthirsty in their wit, to be reduced to reactionary nonsense. And their meticulous forays into the past—in movies as far-flung as The Man Who Wasnt There, Hail, Caesar!, and A Serious Man—never strike me as period fetishism. Their intentions are much more vexed. In The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the West isnt a source of nostalgic pride or a place we ought to willingly, lovingly reinhabit, like some auteurist-friendly Westworld. Rather, its where our great American myths go to die. Buster Scruggs isnt an act of mourning; its laying all that to rest.

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