I’ve spent most of my life in Arizona. Growing up in the American Southwest, I’ve grown accustomed to the depictions of grandeur and fantasy in western and cowboy culture and am genuinely drawn to this aesthetic. If you’ve lived in the Southwest at any point, you’ve probably stumbled into a western gallery to find elaborate depictions of cowboys lassoing cattle, Native American chiefs fighting off great beasts, or vast rocky landscapes, mountain valleys and streams, and endless blue skies. It’s a stereotype of life on the frontier for sure, but no doubt awe inspiring.
The past few decades have yielded some excellent western films. However, this old-world fantasy that lives on in galleries is lately abandoned in film, likely as an effort to counter endless reboots and remakes with more revisionist approaches. As a result, we’ve gotten some truly revolutionary pictures, such as Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight (albeit hyperviolent to a disconcerting degree which I may address some other time), or Paul Thomas Anderson’s excellent There Will be Blood. But despite pressure to bring new twists to a tired genre, no two directors seem to have defended classic Western lore in movies quite as defiantly as Joel and Ethan Coen. I’m happy to say their latest film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, perfectly demonstrates this principle, while still epitomizing creative storytelling and bringing life to the golden age of the Wild West.
The Coen’s first foray into this genre resulted in the excellent neo-western No Country for Old Men. Given how immensely successful this film was, mostly driven by a unique and brutal storyline and its bone-chilling antagonist Anton Chigurh, it was a fair surprise that the Coens decided to follow up with a reboot of True Grit, a grittier take on the classic John Wayne film. I perceived this film’s greatest strength to be its honest realism in depicting the frontier. It was clear the Coens wanted to retain some of the callous tone of No Country to faithfully replicate the novel on which it was based, but also showed they were willing to take a few steps back to champion what had been all but forgotten elements of western film. Buster Scruggs moves even further into this classic fantasy realm of the Wild West. It is presented as a six part anthology of short stories depicted as part of a book. This not only mirrors the format of a classic Disney fairytale, but the collection rolls just as fluidly, as if one is viewing them in an eerie dreamscape. The cumulative result is six very distinct tall tales, all of which bound by this classic Wild West aesthetic, beautiful cinematography, quality screenplays, and a running theme of the fragility of life.
Chapter One is the eponymous Ballad of Buster Scruggs, where we are inducted into the film by the confident and charming titular character, Buster Scruggs. I was roaring with laughter at the ridiculous ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’ depiction of Buster; here, the Coens unleashed the full scope of flamboyant cowboy troupes and jolting Coen-esque violence to a relentless and hyperaware degree. But just as energetically as the story begins, in typical Coen fashion, the story ends with a thudding and somewhat jarring conclusion. Without getting into spoiler territory, a lesson on humility can be learned from this ending, and as the anthology rolls on, we continue to see similar themes in the proceeding tales.
James Franco stars as an outlaw in the following story, Near Aldogones, but the humorous and riotous depiction of a bankteller by Steven Root cannot be ignored as the tale’s most memorable character. Although the story was entertaining and featured a good mix of comedy and tragic downfall, I was rather underwhelmed by James Franco’s performance, although I would prescribe this as his character being underwritten and perhaps the role miscast, a rare misstep for the Coen’s usually meticulous story writing.
The following tale, Meal Ticket, was by far the most disappointing. It features a storyline that to me ran far too long without any development and ended on a very depressing note. Normally I would give this combination a pass had there been a takeaway at the conclusion, but the story felt somewhat void of any depth of meaning. As a silver lining, it was a solid depiction of tragic circumstance and successful in this capacity given the very sparse dialogue. Kudos go to Harry Melling’s surprisingly great performance for delivering the bulk of this impact.
Fortunately, the pace picks up at a steady rate with All Gold Canyon. Not much happens plot wise in this tale, but it’s Tom Wait’s great depiction as a gold prospector that engages the audience into sharing the character’s same hope to strike gold. It concludes as a word of caution for those who aim to accomplish a distant goal to ensure nobody else leeches off their efforts, as well as an evocation of the wild untouched frontier that had been described in stories like Paul Bunyan for decades.
The prospector’s tale is followed up by The Gal Who Got Rattled, which similarly hearkens back to frontier fantasy, while still presenting a well written and clever screenplay. This story was perhaps the most like True Grit: a classic tale of a damsel whose life had been guided by incompetent family, a kind Cowboy whose honest word outshines his rugged posture, and looming threats along the vast and treacherous American plains. Like the other stories, this tale ends on a sadder note, but, in a similar theme of warning, is a reminder to remain vigilant in the face of adversity.
I was highly satisfied with the course of the film at the end of this story, and was unclear as to how the final tale, The Mortal Remains, would bring about the conclusion. The setting of this tale is eerily similar to the beginning of The Hateful Eight: Five very idiosyncratic characters joined by fate in a carriage, riding into the night heading East toward a hotel. The dialogue between these characters is hilariously engaging, with particularly eccentric and outstanding performances being delivered by Jonjo O’Neill as an unorthodox bounty hunter, and Chelcie Ross as a fur trapper. However, after they reach the hotel, the entirety of the tale’s storyline is shown to have a far greater meaning than on surface level, with a relatively simple twist that genuinely took me by surprise. Using unique cinematography and dialogue, it perfectly wraps up this string of tall tales with a satisfying conclusion. Not only does the ending provide solid closure, but the Coen’s distinct inclusion of these characters heading East provides a metaphorical curtain close for the audience: We are saying goodbye to the Old Western fantasy and departing the story in tandem with it’s cast of peculiar yet familiar characters.
Although I felt as though Meal Ticket and Near Aldogones bogged down the film with unnecessary storytelling that yielded little reward, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an exceptional entry into the vast collection of classic Western cinema. It is a perfect demonstration of directors who are confident and well educated in their craft. Had this not been a Coen project, I feel as though few other directors could have pulled off such a challenging endeavor of bringing relevance to an old genre with this level of skill and deep appreciation for preceding influential works. As you peruse Netflix looking for your next movie, I recommend you do not pass up The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. 7.7/10