A Look at the Coen Brothers’ Long-standing Obsession With the Western

Photo: Paramount Pictures

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is Joel and Ethan Coen’s second Western in the last eight years — but only if you’re being strict with your definitions. Western themes and images have blown through their movies from the beginning, starting with the wide-open plains of Blood Simple’s Texas, where little seems to have changed since the days when it marked the spot where the law ended and the wilderness began. The Coens’ attraction to such places, and the untamed characters who live there, is evident even when they’re not, strictly speaking, making Westerns. Joel and Ethan Coen were raised in Minnesota and live in New York, but their hearts belong in the West.

Sometimes they can barely hide it. There’s really no good reason for The Big Lebowski, a noir-inspired shaggy-dog tale set in early-’90s Los Angeles, to open with rolling tumbleweed and be bookended by commentary from Sam Elliott as a cowboy-outfitted character identified only as a “The Stranger.” But there’s one great reason: It erases any distance between the free-ranging movie cowboy hero of old and the Dude’s own late 20th-century brand of layabout free-spiritedness. “Sometimes there’s a man,” the Stranger informs us over footage of the Dude wandering a supermarket in his bathrobe, “Well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there.” They’re the words of a man who’s spent his life trying not to be fenced in recognizing a kindred spirit, and if most of the story sandwiched between the Stranger’s appearances has more to do with Raymond Chandler than Zane Grey, the framing devices work as a beautiful bit of shorthand revealing the soul of Jeff Bridges’s character. The frontier closed decades before the Dude was born, but its restless spirit has lingered.

So have some of its dangers. A different sort of cowboy-hatted character gets the first words in Blood Simple, the Coens’ 1984 debut, commenting in voice-over on the difference between Russia, where “they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else,” and Texas, concluding, “Down here, you’re on your own.” The gentle, drawling voice belongs to Loren Visser, a morally flexible private detective played by M. Emmet Walsh. Hired to kill a cheating couple (Frances McDormand, John Getz) by a jealous husband named Marty (Dan Hedaya), Visser balks and uses a photograph to fake their death. But that doesn’t mean he’s above killing, and when his initial scheme starts to spin out of control, he resorts to more desperate measures to contain matters.

The years have passed and the landscape has become dotted with oil wells and drive-ins, but Blood Simple suggests that the character of a place doesn’t change as quickly. Visser not only wears the hat and boots of another time, he’s kept the attitude, living as if what’s lawful is defined by what you can get away with. “If the pay’s right, and it’s legal, I’ll do it,” he tells Marty when they first speak, then he revises those guidelines: “If the pay’s right, I’ll do it.” There are places governed by just laws meant to protect the innocent and punish the guilty. But Texas, at least the Texas of Blood Simple, isn’t one of them. It’s a borderland, a place where civilization ends. A tense sequence in the middle of the film involves one character driving another to the middle of nowhere to be buried away from prying eyes — but it doesn’t feel like he has to drive very far. In Blood Simple, the darkness on the edge of town has a way of bleeding into city limits.

What’s true of Texas is just as true in Minnesota. In Fargo, Minneapolis car dealer Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) sets a violent chain reaction in motion when he hires some bumbling criminals to kidnap his wife. To recruit them, he has to leave the state, traveling beyond the Minnesota border, going to the city of Fargo, North Dakota, in the West.

As a location, Fargo barely figures into Fargo. Yet it looms large over the film, less as a city than an idea. Fargo is where Jerry has to go to find men not beholden by the restrictions of polite society. It’s the place beyond the law, a place whose destructive influence is allowed to creep into and taint the morally upstanding state of Minnesota. Fargo is evil. Not the real Fargo, which is probably no more good or evil than any other place. But the Fargo of Fargo is as lawless as the Texas of Blood Simple, a spot beyond the frontier filled with dark possibilities. And though the state is situated in the Upper Midwest, it’s worth noting that the James Gang once tried their luck robbing banks in Minnesota. This, too, was once the frontier, even if you wouldn’t know it now.

Not that the frontier has to be all chaos and destruction. The Coens have a soft spot for Western wildness, at least the sort of wildness embodied by the hapless criminal H.I. McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) in Raising Arizona. Released in 1987, the brothers’ second film is both the tale of an outlaw who’s forced by his desire for a family to settle down and the story of a place that’s grown a little too settled and unaccommodating of the restless of spirit. What was once open country has become paved over, leaving no way for those of a certain disposition to make their way in the world.

It’s also become a place where the divide between those who have and those who have not has widened dramatically, making H.I. and his wife Ed’s (Holly Hunter) scheme to steal one of the quintuplets born to a rich couple both a felony and an extreme embodiment of some widespread discontent. H.I. and Ed have discovered that the opportunities that made the West the West — and by extension made America America — just aren’t there anymore, and in case anyone missed the point, a bit of H.I.’s voice-over makes clear how much this is due to the changes brought to the country in the 1980s, saying, “It wasn’t easy with that sumbitch Reagan in the White House.” Then he softens a bit, “I dunno. They say he’s a decent man, so maybe his advisers are confused.”

Where Raising Arizona finds the Coens exploring a West deep into the Reagan era, their Academy Award–winning 2007 film No Country for Old Men unfolds in 1980, when the escalating drug war would soon make the ways of men like Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) seem quaint. The film adapts Cormac McCarthy’s novel and it’s easy to see what attracted the Coens to the material, which, like Fargo, wraps an unsparing morality tale in the guise of a crime story. But it’s also a return to the West, in this case a New West that looks a lot like the Old West in modern dress. The film’s most famous character, the pitiless assassin Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), is both a herald of the bloody new era to come and a throwback to the unhinged badmen of old, men who didn’t so much die off as find new jobs.

Maybe that’s why the Coens’ first proper Western, their 2010 remake of True Grit, felt less like a new development than a homecoming — both for the Coens and star Jeff Bridges. Like the Dude, Bridges’s Rooster Cogburn — a hard-drinking U.S. Marshall hired by a teenager to track down the man who killed her father — fits right into the time of the movie. Only his time is drawing to a close, even if he doesn’t realize it. It’s a Western filled with elegiac undertones, particularly in an epilogue that reveals that Cogburn spent his final years reenacting his glory days as part of a Wild West show. Sometimes you’re the man for your time and place. Sometimes you become a relic of it.

The bittersweetness of True Grit almost seems inevitable, arriving as it does after so many films set in the aftermath of the era it depicts. Of course, a Coen brothers Western would have melancholy built into it. They knew what was coming next. Yet part of what makes The Ballad of Buster Scruggs so exciting is how unpredictable it is. Its six stories all feel like the work of the Coen brothers, naturally, but each has its own look, feel, and thematic obsessions, ranging from the deranged musical that opens it to the eerie, allegorical closing segment. The film seems less the result of the Coens having a sudden urge to tell a bunch of Western stories than a desire to tell some Coen brothers stories in their most agreeable setting.

It seems like working in the Western (and in TV episode-length segments) has given the brothers freedom to try out new approaches. Maybe it’s the beginning of a new phase that will find them charged with ideas drawn from time spent wandering the Old West. It wouldn’t be the first time.

The Coen Brothers’ Long-standing Obsession With the Western