Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), the clean-cut, white-clad singing cowboy who ambles into view atop a white horse at the beginning of the Coen brothers’ new Western anthology film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, may be the movie’s title character, but he’s hardly its protagonist. First of all, Buster appears only in the first of this movie’s six separate sections, which are framed as a collection of published short stories by a recurring device in which a hand turns the pages of an old-fashioned illustrated book. Secondly, despite what his hat color (also white) signals to students of the genre, Buster Scruggs is no hero—as is established in that opening scene when he stops at a desert watering hole, has a few friendly words with the barkeep, and proceeds to wreak bloody havoc on the saloon’s scraggly clientele.
This opening mini-massacre is motivated by no other apparent goal than to prove to us, the audience he addresses directly in a series of menacingly cheery songs, that Buster isn’t kidding around when he holds up a “Wanted” poster with his face on it and brags about being a sharpshooting virtuoso pursued by the law—and that century-old Western conventions won’t save anyone in these stories. This opening chapter accompanies Buster through a series of equally gory and pointless Wild West shootouts, culminating in a comical magic-realist moment in which a deceased character can be seen ascending beatifically to another plane.
The six sections that make up Buster Scruggs are not interconnected by any overlapping narrative threads or shared characters—not even, as far as I could tell, by a semi-obscure network of Easter eggs linking one story to the next. (The Coen brothers seem too foundationally Jewish in their outlook to enjoy devising an “Easter egg” hunt.) But there are thematic resonances common to most, if not all, of the six. Almost to a one, these seriocomic fables about violence and betrayal in the 19th-century American West evince a concern with the distinction between divine and worldly justice; with the mysterious and ever-shifting phenomenon of personal luck (or is it fate?); with the fragility, and yet crucial importance, of intimate human connections in an amoral and uncaring world; and with the wanton ethnic and environmental destruction that the policy of Manifest Destiny both took for granted and actively sought to pursue.
After Buster Scruggs has strutted and fretted his 15 or so minutes upon the stage, there’s a return to the book’s ceremonially turned page as we move on to the story of a would-be bank robber (James Franco) attempting to hold up a remote bank branch staffed by a lone employee (Stephen Root) who’s rigged up his own ramshackle system of self-defense. In the chapter after that, we find ourselves on the road with an itinerant entertainment impresario (Liam Neeson) whose sole attraction is a legless, armless man propped in a chair (Harry Melling, a soulful beauty barely recognizable as the dimwitted Dudley Dursley of the Harry Potter movies). This young man, identified in the credits only as “the Artist” and by the act’s own advertising circulars as “the Wingless Thrush,” has as his nightly job to recite poetry, Bible verses, Shakespeare soliloquies, and passages from the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, all with exquisite diction and delivery, before an unending succession of rough and largely uncomprehending frontier audiences. The exploitative nature of the business arrangement (however willing) between Neeson’s and Melling’s characters exists alongside what seem to be moments of genuine warmth between the two—but in the Coens’ darkly comic and always dangerous world, the promise offered up by such moments is never entirely to be trusted.
Other chapters, each separated by that same formal framing device and given a number and title of its own, concern a grizzled prospector (Tom Waits) staking his claim on a gold-mining site in a secluded valley; a young pioneer woman (Zoe Kazan) struggling to cross the plains with a covered-wagon train after losing her last living relative on earth; and a mismatched quintet of strangers (Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Chelcie Ross, Jonjo O’Neill, and Saul Rubinek) sharing a contentious stagecoach ride on an eerily lit night.
The two strongest entries are the Tom Waits segment, based on a story by Jack London, and the Zoe Kazan one, which was inspired by a tale from the popular Western writer Stewart Edward White, a contemporary of London’s. The other four stories are the Coens’ own and—with the exception of the affecting segment about the traveling impresario and his limbless main attraction—they have a slight, unfinished quality, not like miniature movies but like extended teasers for nonexistent features.
As always, the Coens have rendered the physical details of the worlds they create with exquisite care. The book we return to between chapters is a marvelously complete object, right down to the prose we briefly glimpse on its pages, written in a wholly different style than the spoken dialogue—which itself varies widely in style from one story to the next, sometimes baroque in its verbal playfulness, sometimes (as in Tom Waits’ scenes) little more than expressive grunts. The beautifully thought-through costumes by Mary Zophres and the witty production design by Jess Gonchor—both longtime collaborators with the brothers—combine with the pellucid cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel (who’s worked with them only once before, on Inside Llewyn Davis), to create a world that’s recognizable as Hollywood’s dream of “the West”—all swinging-door saloons, demure calico dresses, and expansive prairie vistas—but that also permits occasional glimpses at a truer and darker historical reality.
In the movie’s most memorable storylines, the filmmakers appear to be working through some sort of problem in their, and our, relationship to the mythology of the American West. Either they’re deromanticizing a long-held archetype (for example, the good guy dressed in white) or they’re attempting to recast a familiar Western plotline through a rarely considered point of view. What would it be like to be a disabled traveling performer, dependent on a manager for not only your income and personal safety but for every bite of food you ate? How would the already perilous passage across the Great Plains by covered wagon hold even more dangers for a single woman with no male relative to protect her?
Those flashes of compassion, though, alternate with bursts of extreme violence often served up in classic Coen brothers style—which is to say, with a cheeky sadism toward characters and audiences alike. Almost every story contains at least one violent death, often of someone who did nothing to deserve it. In two separate stories, there’s a moment when a group of white settlers is ambushed by a party of Native Americans on horseback, a Western trope familiar since the days of John Ford. These indigenous warriors aren’t in any way depicted by the film as “savages,” though one character matter-of-factly refers to them by that term. But nor are they invested with any character, backstory, or motivation for attacking that particular group of settlers at that moment. You might argue that by filming these ethnic “others” at a distance, the Coens are simply recapturing how indigenous tribes were experienced by frontierspeople at the time, or engaging in a pastiche of the genre’s racist history. But in a movie that goes out of its way to overturn our assumptions about the Western, I would have welcomed some sense of who the human beings were behind the warpaint and thrown arrows.
Like most books of short stories, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has some entries that will stay with you longer than others. The brothers have said that all these short films started out as ideas for feature-length Westerns, and the tale of the pioneer crossing, in particular, has the tragic scope and moral weight of a full movie. It’s one of the few chapters I can imagine wanting to revisit on its own. But as the pages turn, it’s sometimes hard to work out just what these specific bleak visions of frontier life have in common, why it was important to get them on film and string them together in this order.
Like many of the Coens’ later films (No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man, Inside Llewyn Davis), The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has a streak of pitch-black nihilism. As one of the travelers on that tense stagecoach ride suggests, we all enjoy hearing the stories about the death of others if only to ensure that we’ve staved off our own demise that much longer. But in its best scenes, this portmanteau of jauntily morbid fireside tales also offers a streak of something else, like the underground vein of gold that Tom Waits’ prospector patiently seeks: the small human moments of surprise, delight, and connection that lie somewhere between the first page of each life’s story and the last.