The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Annapurna Pictures, distributed by Netflix, 133 minutes, 2018, R
The Coen brothers explore mythic absurdity and mortality on the Western frontier in a six-part anthology film that sees them juggling tones—from Looney Toons slapstick to bone-chilling morbidity and back again—with the veterans’ deft touch. The stories are framed as though part of a Wild West short story collection. They begin with lighter fare, the ballad from which the film takes its name.
Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) may be a singing cowboy with the white studs and easygoing temperament of a Gene Autry or Roy Rogers, but he also happens to be the most ruthless killer in the territory. In the first of many delightfully articulated monologues to camera, he politely calls into question the use of the word “misanthrope” on his wanted poster.
Trouble seems to follow Buster wherever he goes, and he normally deals with it in cartoonish, violent terms, often toying with his adversaries like Bugs Bunny would Elmer Fudd. Buster gets into an argument with a grunt of a man, Joe, over a game of cards and deals him a grotesque fate that would make Quentin Tarantino smile. He then gets the whole town to join him in a hilariously upbeat call-and-response song and dance about the freshly minted corpse on the saloon floor: “Surly Joe [Surly Joe]; Surly Joe [Surly Joe]; Wherever he’s gambling now, I don’t know [We don’t know];…Humankind he frowned upon, but not now his face is gone; guess your frownin’ days are done, Surly Joe [Yee-haw!].”
But the Coens, as they’ve done in works from No Country for Old Men to A Serious Man, don’t just excavate the macabre for whimsy’s sake. In it, they also find inequity, incomprehensibility and true despair.
In the second story—and probably the weakest of the bunch—“Near Algodones,” a bandit (James Franco) escapes a lynching after a failed bank robbery, only to have to face the gallows again for a crime he did not commit. In the third and most melancholic segment, “Meal Ticket,” a thespian (Harry Melling) with no arms and no legs performs for a traveling showman (Liam Neeson) in exchange for food, shelter and care. It’s a bitter commentary on art and mass consumption—a 19th-century version of selling out in the entertainment business.
Next up, in “All Gold Canyon,” we accompany a kooky, good-natured prospector (Tom Waits) into a picturesque river valley in search of gold. Although a willing participant in a world of greed, this prospector never takes more than he needs. In search of breakfast, he hastily grabs four owl eggs in a tree, only to reconsider and put three back. “One is OK,” he reasons. “How high can a bird count anyhow?”
The fifth story, “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” is the longest and sees the Coens wholeheartedly embrace romance, a genre they’ve rarely approached in such straightforward terms. A young woman (Zoe Kazan) heads west on a wagon train to meet her husband-to-be in Oregon, only to fall in love with the wagon master (Bill Heck) en route. But the Coens’ amusing depiction of the formal and logistical approach to 19th-century courting soon gives way to a twist on the frontier rule “save the last bullet for yourself.”
The final chapter of their hypothetical storybook, “The Mortal Remains,” depicts a stagecoach ride in which three passengers—a trapper, the wife of a theologian and a loquacious Frenchman—recite their life stories and quarrel about the human condition. They are all headed to the same place in the end—“wherever that may be,” as Buster Scruggs sings in the opening segment—with the iconic Western stagecoach playing something of a stand-in for the mythological boat that crosses the River Styx into Hades.
Two grim reapers in the form, quite fittingly, of bounty hunters (Jonjo O’Neill and Brendan Gleeson) accompany the passengers on their journey to the afterlife. The frivolous bounty hunters go unnamed, but they might as well be called Joel and Ethan Coen. “We’re a duo,” one says. “A team.” He goes on to detail his morbid fascinations and in turn gives the Coens’ closing statement on their six mini operas of death: “It’s always interesting watching…the passage from here to there.…I do like looking into their eyes as they try to make sense of it.” Another passenger asks nervously, “And do they make sense of it?” The bounty hunter shrugs innocuously. “How would I know? I’m only watching.”