For decades, it was easy to undervalue Joel and Ethan Coen — not their droll, hyper-literate dialogue or knowing use of old movie tropes, or talent for pinpointing the core eccentricity in a given actor and making it seem hip, even blessed. It was their glibness. Their characters were puppets of a prankster God who dispatched human beings without feeling — a lack of emotion shared by most audiences, who felt little more than admiration for the brothers and maybe for themselves, for getting the in-jokes. This is not to take away from The Big Lebowski, the best stoner comedy of all time, or a handful of other superb entertainments. But the cynicism was distancing.
Nowadays, that cynicism remains intact: On the evidence, the Coens believe that we are ruled by a self-interest that blinds us to the consequences of our actions and that God, if He exists, can be counted on to show no mercy. Gradually, though, macabre farce has yielded to tragedy. Taking their cues from Cormac McCarthy, their modern Western No Country for Old Men spared no one, good or evil, and offered no catharsis. (At the time, this annoyed me — I wanted the conventional consolations of genre. I was shortsighted.) Their next Western, a remake of True Grit, was superficially similar to Henry Hathaway’s version with John Wayne, but the denouement made all the difference. As in Charles Portis’s novel, a girl’s obsession with revenge ends up maiming her (literally and metaphorically) for life: Her universe violently contracts with the shot that kills her father’s murderer. The Coens’ newest Western, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, might be their bleakest work of all, and one of their richest.
It’s an omnibus film: six short Old West tales broken only by that corny old cliché — the pages of a book being turned. The stories are jarringly different in tone — so different that they left early festival audiences puzzled. The first two are crammed with bloody deaths but giddy and absurdist — they give you a high. The third is a steep drop into icy waters. The fourth is lighter, though it leaves a bitter taste, and the fifth is simply crushing. The sixth is on its own weird, cosmic plateau. I confess that on leaving the screening I was disappointed — but affected enough that I continued to take the movie apart in my head. Sometimes it’s good to let things sit and not rush to judgment. Now I think the Coens were dead right in their approach. The tales color and deepen one another. Different on the surface, they’re philosophically all of a piece.
With hindsight, the jolly first story — “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” — lays out the Coens’ vision. Tim Blake Nelson is the singing sharpshooter who talks to the audience, frequently praising his own “pleasing baritone.” You get delightfully well-staged saloon dance numbers side-by-side with indiscriminate carnage. Buster is infectiously blithe, rousingly virtuosic with a revolver, and a pure psychopath, although his sickness can be attributed to the Western genre as a whole. (He has no correlative outside the universe of movies.) In the next segment, “Near Algodones,” James Franco is a robber who’s buffeted by forces beyond his control, among them bankers with unexpected defenses, roving posses, and scalp-hunting Indians. (Forgive me for not saying “Native Americans” — these are retro Western-movie warriors, “Injuns,” really.) Twice he ends up in a noose, as if Death has chased him to Samarra and beyond.
Then the sudden plunge: The tone of “Meal Ticket” is wintry and woebegone, the pacing ponderous. An “impresario” (Liam Neeson) travels from remote town to remote town with a pale, legless, armless “artist” (Harry Melling) who is duly propped up to give recitations from Shakespeare, Milton, the Bible, and the Gettysburg Address before dwindling audiences. How cruel this story is: You watch Neeson’s proto–P. T. Barnum care for this frail young man, feed him and wrap him tenderly, and you think there is love there, and you are wrong. “All Gold Canyon” is almost all Tom Waits as an indefatigable prospector surrounded by omens of death. “The Gal Who Got Rattled” is the longest and most fleshed out of the tales, the story of a wagon train, a sister (Zoe Kazan) whose brother has contracted to marry her off in Oregon to a rich old man, and a handsome wagon leader (Bill Heck) who sees in the girl a chance to settle down and create a home — even if it means forsaking his old partner (Grainger Hines).
The resolution is as bitterly ironic as anything the Coens have ever concocted.
What to make of the final segment, “The Mortal Remains,” which is set almost entirely inside a stagecoach and features two bounty hunters (Brendan Gleeson, Jonjo O’Neill), a Frenchman (Saul Rubinek), a trapper (Chelcie Ross), and a lady (Tyne Daly)? It is the most claustrophobic story of all and yet the most transcendent — although the nature of that transcendence suggests that the next world will be no warmer than this one. Is there balm in Gilead? Quoth the raven, “Er, probably not. I’ll get back to you.”
For all the Coens’ relish for old Westerns, the landscape of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a stark canvas for depicting the ways in which humans blindly strive and have their hopes dashed. But no nihilists could have made this film, which is less James L. Cain than Samuel Beckett. Carter Burwell’s score is perhaps his most achingly beautiful. The actors give crisp, stylized performances that go from gleefully cartoonish (Nelson) to radiantly open (Kazan, who is lovely). This is the sort of film that traditionally marks the start of an artist’s “late phase” — one in which old motifs are brought back in different keys and tested, and in which the bounds of realism are loosened. For the Coens, it’s a thrilling new frontier.
*This article appears in the November 12, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was nominated for two Oscars in 2019, including Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Song.