Howdy, pardners! It’s been a long day’s ride, so knock that dust off your chaps and take a pew right here by the campfire for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
This here hoedown, streaming on Netflix starting Friday, is a rootin’ tootin’ new movie from those Coen boys, wanted up and down the frontier for spinning yarns like True Grit, No Country for Old Men and The Big Lebowski.
This new wagon train of theirs was originally slated to be a fancy-dan TV show taking the form of an anthology of standalone Western stories. The finished film recounts six campfire tales, gothic spine-tinglers and shaggy-dog stories.
Each chapter opens with the camera diving into the pages of a Western storybook, which sure does set the old-fashioned tone for the series of tall tales and mood pieces. Hell, one story is even based on a Jack London tale, if that don’t beat all!
But this movie doesn’t just draw inspiration from the pages of old books. It’s a goldarned love letter to the western genre.
The trail begins with an affectionate return for one of the most old-fashioned pieces of movie lore you can imagine: a singing cowboy. Coen Brothers regular Tim Blake Nelson opens the film riding onto the screen grinning cheerily and harmonising with the echoing canyons in milk white duds. Garrulous and chatty, his character Buster Scruggs is the antithesis to the squinting, scowling Man With No Name of modern westerns — right up until someone questions whether his shootin’ irons work, at which point he proves himself as deadly as Clint Eastwood at his orneriest.
Complete with Tex Avery-style cartoon dust cloud and elaborately twirling pistols, this opening chapter is as stylised as all get-out. There’s a delight in baroque language when Buster soliloquises about “the day’s measure of hoof clops” and saloons full of “customers amenable to drawing up in a circle around a deck of cards”.
This ain’t set in the Old West. It’s set in an old western.
Buster Scruggs rides herd on a posse of stories unfolding in a frontier fantasia that never existed, ‘cept on a Hollywood back lot. Some of the other chapters keep that stylised feel, with details like a solitary bank clearly meant to look like a matte painting from an old movie. Others feel more gritty and grounded, like the tale of a grizzled prospector lumbering across vast sweeping landscapes and getting the muck under his fingernails as he pans for gold over and over.
From singing cowboy to pastoral wagon train romances to gothic ghost stories, these yarns span various iterations of the western. The main through-line is the signature Coen brothers element of the unexpected: Chucklesome black humour and grotesque violence is never far away. Either is as likely as the other in any given situation, and laughs and violence often arrive wrapped together.
Deliciously funny as these stories frequently are, the endings are rarely happy. Although to speak plainly, the endings are rarely even endings. Many of us god-fearing reg’lar folk expect a twist at the closing of a short story, but life ain’t like that on the frontiers of the Coen brothers’ imagination, no sirree.
The last story in particular is more of a mood piece than a story, a haunting meditation leaving more questions than answers. But while it’s a lyrical and lovely slice of mist-shrouded eeriness, it’s also not much of a resolution. I’m put to mind of the abrupt ending of the Coen boys’ espionage pastiche Burn After Reading, in which a baffled J.K. Simmons tries to puzzle out what just happened. “So that’s it then?” he ponders. “What did we learn?”
One thing we don’t learn in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is anything about the genre being celebrated. In its obvious affection for the traditional western myth, the film ignores or just plum repeats the worst sins of the genre. Not once but twice do whooping savages charge over the horizon to brutally ride down white innocents. In this day and age it’s hard to watch a film that lauds the steadfastness of white settlers forcing their way into the unspoiled west while depicting Native Americans as a demonically hostile force.
From the revisionist westerns of the 1970s to more modern reinventions like Deadwood and Westworld, there’s a lot of life in the ol’ western yet. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is overall a delightful confection and looks right purty with its endless wide-screen landscapes and desert vistas, but it sure does leave a cowboy thirsting. Part storybook, part love letter, Buster Scruggs ends up feeling like a Coen brothers B-sides compilation, full of half-formed thoughts and beautiful but maddening vignettes.
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