Word on the internet is that the Coen Brothers’ newest movie, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, started as a six-part anthology TV series, only to be retooled during production into this 132-minute anthology film.
Series are overrated. Brevity can often be the key to brilliance, and it’s certainly essential to the grim genius of Buster Scruggs.
Many of the Coen hallmarks are here — a storybook opening, a narrator (a few, actually), bleak humor (perhaps their bleakest since A Serious Man) and a sense of overriding nihilism that never feels spiteful, only softly understanding. The arbitrary natures of death, pain and failure aren’t mourned or celebrated here, only presented for your empathy. Like Hail, Caesar!, Buster Scruggs is the Coens’ shot at a classic Hollywood genre in the form of vignettes that all play toward a cluster of basic themes and ideas.
Yes, they made a True Grit remake, but here they take on the Western in all its forms: a musical, a gritty nu-Western, a circus tale, a gold discovery, a romance, a society drama. The singing cowboy dressed in white, the Cormac McCarthy-like death-dealer, the “freak,” the prospector, the pioneer woman, the rich industrialist. To see the West on the big screen is to understand it as a mythic place of American grandiosity. To see it in a museum, or read about it in a book, is to see something far bleaker. Deconstructions of the Western usually involve aesthetic spareness to match the themes and actions of their violent characters. Scruggs does not. Scruggs is the silver-screen West cut with the pure hell of actual Western history.
The six stories are of varying quality. Scruggs plays very much like the sort of short-story collection you might pick up in the discount paperback section of a used bookstore — the kind of paperback rarely published nowadays but produced in such extraordinary quantity when my grandparents were children that you can still find them for cover price ($1 or less). Here we have: “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” “Near Algodones,” “Meal Ticket,” “All Gold Canyon,” “The Gal Who Got Rattled” and “The Mortal Remains” — each titled to attract a reader’s attention, in a sort of friendly competition with their bound-book brethren. Only one feels weak, but that’s to be expected in a collection — ups and downs. Another is the bleakest shit I’ve seen all year. Each features lovingly shot (sometimes CGI-backdropped) depictions of the gorgeous Western frontier. None make the West as visually ugly as the people who travel within it. That beauty is the greatest shared irony across the six stories.
The Coens’ ear for dialogue and direction means the writing in Scruggs is characteristically enjoyable on the ears. They wrote the stories over the course of 25 years. A few feel like writing exercises for larger works. Most involve betrayal and characters becoming undone by their own arrogance. I mentioned that much of Scruggs fits perfectly into the overall Coen catalogue, but it’s easy to see how each of these tales would’ve potentially outworn their welcome at 45 minutes a pop. Slamming them all together as an anthology that never overstays its welcome was one hell of a smart call. Netflix has made a name for itself releasing movies that tend to run long, from directors uninhibited by the structures and editorial directives of major studios; maybe the Coens founds themselves tempted by unlimited space and found it wanting.
They had no trouble scrounging up a cast, though — Tim Blake Nelson (as the titular singing cowboy), James Franco, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits and Brendan Gleeson make up the star-studded upper credits here, but comparative newcomers Bill Heck, Zoe Kazan and Willie Watson land their stories so viscerally, despite having so little with such little space to play.
Unlike some of the Coens’ other films, Scruggs is so overwhelmingly dark that it requires a bit of patience. It is from the darkest hole in their hearts and the comedy is at times muted, but for those that love the Coen Brothers, this is, as is everything they make, a must-watch. The more I thought about Scruggs, the movie I found myself loving it. I wanted to rewatch it immediately.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is available to stream on Netflix on 11/16