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Non-Review Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is not so much a set of stories about the Old West, more a set of stories about the stories that are told about the Old West.

To be fair, the anthology film wears this premise on its sleeve. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is by its nature an omnibus of short stories, drawing its audience’s attention to the format through the framing device of an anonymous hand leafing gently through an old hardcover book of short stories. Even within the individual stories, the Coen Brothers frequently nest smaller and more intricate narratives; whether stories shared at dinner, great works recited for an enchanted audience, or even just strangers in a stage coach making awkward conversation with one another.

The rifle man.

In the film’s final segment, The Mortal Remains, the self-described “distractor” Thigpen explains that he distracts his quarry through stories. “People can’t get enough of them,” he assures his audience. “Because people connect the stories to themselves, I suppose. And we all love hearing about ourselves. So long as the people in the stories are us… but not us.” In its own weird way, positioned at the tail end of the narrative, Thigpen seems to offer something of a thesis statement for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a story about stories. In particular, a story about certain types of stories.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is decidedly uneven, as anthology films tend to be. That said, the quality is high enough (and the stories disparate enough) that it’s easy to imagine that each story of the six might be someone‘s favourite. The Coen Brothers very cannily and very astutely ensure a great variety in tone across the six installments, which range from gleefully nihilistic, to sombre and withdrawn, to eerie and uncanny. However, they are connected by a series of recurring preoccupations about life of the frontier and man’s awkward relationship to both that wilderness and his fellow man.

No need to make a song and dance about it.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is not consistent enough to rank among the Coens’ best work. While the movie maintains a consistent perspective and philosophical vantage point across its two-hour-and-ten-minute runtime, the individual stories vary so wildly in terms of aesthetic and rhythm that the film never quite coheres as well as it might. At the same time, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs contains enough delightful details in its smaller moments that linger, suggesting that the film might best be remembered as a collection of inspired moments rather than as a satisfying whole.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is not so much a ballad as a concept album.

Don’t leave him hanging.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs essentially charts a history of the idea of the frontier in popular American culture, the ever-evolving myth of life in the Old West, filtered through an ever-evolving lens. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs essentially offers six differing perspectives on what the frontier was to America, flicking between them in such a way as to invite the audience to identify the unifying essence of the west that connects these very disparate visions of what life in nineteenth century America might have been like.

This is perhaps most obvious in the movie’s first segment, starring Tim Blake Nelson as the eponymous cowboy. Buster Scruggs is a fascinating creation, but one who arguably serves as a piece of connective tissue between the Coen Brothers’ last film and this one. An upbeat dandy cowboy with a guitar in his hand and a tune in his heart, Buster Scruggs is the sort of charming outlaw that Hobie Doyle might have played in Hail, Caesar! Indeed, it is Buster Scruggs who immediately establishes The Ballad of Buster Scruggs as a story about stories, feeling like the lead character of a film produced by Capitol Pictures.

Of course, as strange as it might seem to contemporary audiences, singing cowboys were a genre unto themselves during the thirties and forties. These wholesome figures populated the b-movies that were casually pumped out by major studios to fill the cinema chains that they owned. Although later takes on the genre like Paint Your Wagon turned the figure into a punchline, the singing cowboy was an important part of the cultural history of the Old West. That charming musical figure provided a good natured and earnest depiction of what life was like in “the good old days.”

So, naturally, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has a great deal of fun throwing this cartoonish caricature of the era into increasingly violent and chaotic surroundings, as if to juxtapose this idealised concept with the brutal reality. It’s an effective juxtaposition, even if it might have been a struggle to adapt the joke to a feature-length story. However, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs works so well because the joke isn’t on Buster. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs makes a point to stress that the eponymous character is never really out of his depth.

Oh, shoot!

Instead, the joke is on the audience for believing that a character like Buster could be anything but a relentless unstoppable killing machine. The juxtaposition in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is not between Buster and the world, it is between the image that Buster projects (or which the audience has projected upon him) and the kind of person that he needs to be in order to survive on the lawless frontier. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs presents “The West Texas Twit” and “The Herald of Demise” as a live-action Roadrunner, a goofy and charming figure capable of incredible acts of violence.

Early in the film, Buster stops at an outpost for some whiskey to help his singing voice. Informed that this is a “dry county”, Buster assures the bartender of his badass bona fides, “Well, don’t let my white duds and pleasant demeanour fool you, I too have been known to violate the statutes of man and not a few of the laws of the almighty.” Though the line is delivered with Blake Nelson’s “aw, shucks!” folksiness, the film quick clarifies its seriousness. As much as early twentieth century depictions of the Old West might have invested in a sanitised and wholesome depiction of these outlaws, the reality was very different.

Just us justice.

The remaining stories in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs all play with pop culture’s evolving depictions of the Old West in varying detail. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs ends with a metaphorical passing of the torch to a slightly more modern western protagonist, who trades in Buster’s “white duds” and guitar for much darker attire and a harmonica, transitioning from the traditional western narratives of the thirties and forties towards the more cynical and deconstructionist stories of the late sixties.

The second story, Near Algodones, seems very consciously to be riffing on the work of Sergio Leone. Here, the west is presented as a vast and empty frontier, allowing for those sorts of atmospheric and tense wide shots that Leone did so well. Clad in a longer duster, James Franco plays an anonymous bandit creditted only as “cowboy.” He’s planning a bank robbery outside Tucumcari, of which Angel Eyes might well approve. In terms of aesthetic, Near Algodones is populated by long pauses and ambient sound; the creaking of hinges, the rhythmic thud of a wooden bucket blowing in the wind against the inside of a well.

In our own ways, we are all a-Leone.

Near Algodones suggests a decidedly grimmer aesthetic than The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Indeed, the Coens explicitly contrast the two storytelling modes, with Buster treating his faithful horse as a friend and possible duet partner, while the outlaw in Near Algodones is unable to even convince his horse to answer his call. Near Algodones offers a much less colourful and much more overtly bleak depiction of frontier life, even without its incorporation of the recurring botched hanging motif from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

In contrast to that blackly comic grimness, All Gold Canyon depicts an idealistic prospector in an idyllic valley who seems to have reached an accord with nature itself; he is very much at peace with the world, even if his fellow man is a different story entirely. There are shades of the romanticised west depicted in films and television series like Little House on the Prairie in All Gold Canyon, the story that most explicitly and most affectingly evokes the raw potential of the American wilderness as a place of self-discovery and communion with nature.

The Gal Who Got Rattled feels very much of a piece with the revisionist westerns of the twenty-first century, notable as the only story in the anthology with a female lead and with a premise that explicitly evokes Meek’s Cutoff, with a young woman who finds herself venturing west with a wagon train and finds herself caught between a series of inadequate male companions along the way. The Coens very consciously evoke that style of western; it is no coincidence that The Gal Who Got Rattled is the longest of the stories, nor that it is the most naturalistic, nor that it takes the most circuitous route to its ending.

Finally, The Mortal Remains suggests the cinematic western as it exists today, primarily through the filter of Quentin Tarantino and his work on films like Django Unchained or The Hateful Eight. Indeed, The Mortal Remains is effectively a single over-extended scene involving lots of very wry and playful dialogue, a number of extended monologues, and a set of bounty hunters as its central characters. As in Django Unchained, one of the central characters is an erudite European dandy. As in The Hateful Eight, there is a recurring suggestion that these strangers might have found themselves in hell – or purgatory, at least.

Don’t pan it.

Taken as a whole, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs offers something of an abridge tour of the history of the western as depicted in stories. In theory, all of the characters within The Ballad of Buster Scruggs exist in close temporal proximity to one another; none of the events depicted in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs seem separated from one another by large chunks of history. Instead, the film suggests that the stories themselves might have been told in different eras, the tone and the emphasis of the film shifting dramatically as the Coen Brothers change the lens through which that historical moment is examined.

After all, it is debatable whether the frontier was ever as potent in the real world as it was in these myths and stories, whether physical locations like New Mexico and West Texas could compete with the vast and intangible “West.” Even within these individual stories, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs places an emphasis on mythmaking and storytelling. Characters in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs are always telling stories, whether epic or personal, suggesting a level of recursiveness to proceedings. Thigpen may be right. People can’t get enough of them.

A man and his dog.

The eponymous character in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is already something of a myth, carrying around his own wanted poster in order to complain to the audience about the nickname assigned to him. Meal Ticket is the story of a wandering showman whose price exhibit recites on cue from Ozymandius, The Tempest and the United States Constitution to assembled crowds. The Gal Who Got Rattled opens with a family telling stories over dinner, and Alice Longabaugh is lured west by her brother with the promise of a potential proposal from a stranger who may own an orchard or several orchards; he is not clear.

Indeed, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs even returns repeatedly to the idea of singing as an essential act of communication and storytelling. The eponymous cowboy is properly introduced in an extended (and joyous) sequence in which he sings of his journey across the frontier. The prospector in All Gold Canyon sings to himself to help remain sane. The wagon train in The Gal Who Got Rattled circle around every evening, and sing and dance together in order to feel some sort of bond. The Irishman in The Mortal Remains regales the stage coach with his rendition of “Has Anybody Here Seen Molly?”

Being pretty Browned off.

There is a recurring sense in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs that human beings yearn for connection. This connection is not necessarily to other people and might even be to nature, as demonstrated in All Gold Canyon. It may even be a more abstract connection to ideas and stories, as suggests in The Mortal Remains. However, there is a strong sense that man is not capable of being truly alone. In The Mortal Remains, a wild man from the mountains explains his own periodic trips to civilisation. “You gotta keep your hand in talkin’, even if you live in the wilderness,” he explains to his travelling companions.

In The Gal Who Got Rattled, Alice repeatedly wanders away from the safety of the wagon train and out into the wilderness alone. In fact, repeatedly over the course of the story, she finds herself isolated both physically and emotionally. It is made very clear to her that this is dangerous. “It’s like the ocean out here,” warns her guide. “Easy to get lost.” He may be speaking in a literal sense, but is also speaking allegorically. Alice does not just need the safety of the wagon train to protect her from elements, the story suggests. Instead, people something larger than themselves to stay human, in a bigger existential sense.

There is a paradox here, of course. As much as characters in the film might yearn for a spiritual connection to something greater than just themselves, it is very hard to realise. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs suggests that the world is fundamentally chaotic and that other people are fundamentally unknowable to one another. Poker comes up in the two stories that bookend the film, as an effective metaphor for how hard it is to properly read other people and how skillfully other human beings conceal their motivations from one another.

There is a recurring dialogue within The Ballad of Buster Scruggs about the nature of people, with the film alternatively suggesting that people are destined to always be strangers to one another and yet that they are also creatures with simple motivations. “We each have a life,” insists the Frenchman in The Mortal Remains. He clarifies, “Our own life.” In the same story, the wild man reflects on his own long-standing relationship with a woman from the wilderness. “I never even knew her name.”

West is Best.

Nevertheless, the wild man insists, “The nature of those vocal intonations and the play of feelings across her face allowed me to gather that people are like ferrets – or a beaver – all pretty much alike. Each one like the next.” Indeed, this is a recurring visual motif in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which often pays particular attention to the animals surrounding the human cast, often asking the audience if there is that much of a difference between the humans and the assortment of creatures in the wilderness.

Buster Scruggs himself seems to have more time for his faithful horse than any human he might meet on his travels. In All Gold Canyon, the anonymous prospect seems to have struck an accord with the local wildlife while searching the canyon for gold. Alice’s most constant traveling companion in The Gal Who Got Rattled is a dog that doesn’t even belong to her, President Pierce. Similarly, while Alice herself cannot determine what manner of beast are the prairie dogs, those small and unlikely critters prove a surprisingly disruptive influence upon supposedly more advanced creatures who would claim dominion over the plains.

Why Waits?

It is tempting to read The Ballad of Buster Scruggs as misanthropic and nihilistic, in keeping with certain (simplistic) readings of the Coen Brothers’ filmography. Indeed, the eponymous character seems to find the writers and directors gently poking fun at this characterisation, in much the same way as they did with the nihilists in The Big Lebowski. Introducing himself to the audience, Buster rejects the label thrust upon him, “This one here I don’t consider even half-earned. The Misanthrope? I don’t hate my fellow man. Even when he’s tiresome, surly, and cheats at poker. I figure that’s just the human material.”

There is certainly a bleakness running through The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Two of the six stories end with a bullet through a major character’s forehead. Another ends with a hanging. Even the one story that doesn’t actually feature a significant death still features a prominent dead body. Indeed, the film’s suggestion that people might not be so superior to animals is arguably taken to its logical extreme in Meal Ticket, in which a performer at a stage show finds himself worried about being replaced by a piece of livestock. The world of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is harsh and cruel.

Poster child.

That is a unifying theme of these six stories of the American frontier. No matter how the story is framed and constructed, no matter through which lens the audience is looking at a given moment, the frontier is a place of violence and brutality. It doesn’t matter how the story is told, the story is still underpinned by the same logic. The frontier is a place shaped by the myth of rugged individualism and incredible opportunity, a place where any person could hypothetically stakes a claim and seize a little corner of the world for themselves. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs repeatedly wonders whether these are always good things?

In The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the rugged individualism of the Old West is crippling and isolating, creating a climate where everybody is truly alone and nobody can be trusted. The characters in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs are always looking out for themselves and their own interests, no matter who politely they might dress up that self-interest. It is a solitary existence, even for those characters who surround themselves. Alice can be alone in the middle of a wagon train, just as Buster can be in a class of his own in a bustling salon in the middle of a singalong.

Similarly, this mercenary self-interest can be horrifying and numbing. Meal Ticket is perhaps the movie’s bleakest meditation on this idea, notably for almost the complete lack of dialogue outside of the theatrical performances at its core; this bleak exploitation is so universal and so familiar that it never needs to be explicitly articulated or explained through exposition. The audience can understand the dynamics at play through the visuals and only a handful of lines. However, it also simmers beneath the surface of The Gal Who Got Rattled and The Mortal Remains, or the climax of All Gold Canyon.

In some ways, this hints at the unspoken horror of the frontier, the legacy of slavery on the American Old West. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs does not tackle the issue of slavery directly, which makes a certain amount of sense. After all, the horror of slavery is something that has only been explicitly acknowledged in more recent mainstream westerns, and was notable for its more-or-less complete absence from many of the stories that The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is directly evoking.

The not-so-greatest showman.

Nevertheless, the spectre of slavery haunts The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The film returns repeatedly to the idea of the commodification of human life, and the reduction of individuals to objects with no agency. Meal Ticket is the most obvious example, but it also plays through the bounty hunters in The Mortal Remains. There are also shades of it in The Gal Who Got Rattled, wherein Alice seems to exercise very little autonomy in her own life, dragged across the frontier by her brother to be married to a stranger and facing a marriage proposal which may be necessary for her survival.

Along with Buster Scruggs himself, this serves as an effective mirroring of some of the central preoccupations of Hail, Caesar! In particular, both The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Hail, Caesar! focus on the issue of how capitalist systems commodifies human beings. More than that, both The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Hail, Caesar! are about how that commodification is essentially woven into the fabric of American mythology and perpetuated through the structures that retell and reiterate these myths.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is too disjointed and tonally variable to position itself as a significant work in the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre. It is too broad and too abstract in its central themes to properly cohere into a singular statement, deliberately eschewing a singular perspective to instead offer a variety of perspectives on the same basic ideas. It is no small irony that The Ballad of Buster Scruggs feels so much like a companion piece to Hail, Caesar!, which itself often felt a like a selection of Golden-Age-of-Hollywood-themed comedy sketches with a barest of plots threaded through them.

Like Hail, Caesar!, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a collection of stories about the stories that we tell, albeit one less interested in the mechanics of how we tell those stories and more interested in the substance underpinning those stories. The result is uneven, but no less compelling and intriguing for that.

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