The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
Written and directed by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Produced by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Megan Ellison, Sue Naegle, Robert Graf
Cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel
Music by Carter Burwell
Edited by Roderick Jaynes
Annapurna Pictures, Mike Zoss Productions
Distributed by Netflix
“There’s just gotta be a place up ahead where men ain’t low down, and poker’s played fair. If there weren’t, what are all the songs about?”
The Coen Brothers’ latest film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, may appear to be their most nihilistic venture yet and that’s saying a lot. Of course it contains dark humor (as do all of their films, even No Country for Old Men), exquisite cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel, a fantastic score by Carter Burwell, and excellent performances, but I kept asking myself what’s different this time around? Maybe not all that much. Maybe everything.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs beings with a well-seasoned book resting atop an antique-looking wooden table. The book - clearly made to look as if it were published well before the days of dust jackets - carries the title, a drawing of the remains of a leafless (and lifeless) tree, and a steer skull. (By the way, I’d buy this book in a second if it ever became available.) A hand opens the cover to reveal the book’s proper title, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Other Tales of the American Frontier, with Color Plates.” These color plates are the kind of illustrations no one makes anymore: rich, colorful pictures printed on thick, heavy paper with each page prefaced by a thin, translucent covering. This is a relic (no doubt a recently manufactured one), yet also a thing of beauty. And then we have the text.
What I’m describing may seem tedious, and perhaps it is, but it’s also significant as it speaks not only to the great care and detail the Coens bring to their story, but also the difference between what we see and what’s left mostly unseen on the page (unless we’re paying very close attention). For instance, the opening story, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” begins with the printed words, “No one heard it, but the lone rider’s song carried far through the crisp morning air.” The image of the printed page fades as we visually journey inside the story to see Buster (Tim Blake Nelson) riding through the desert, playing his guitar and singing, riding on his horse Dan. Buster breaks the fourth wall in order to speak to us, the audience, as he laments the attachment of the word “misanthrope” to his picture on a wanted poster.
“Misanthrope? I don’t hate my fellow man,” says Buster, “even when he’s tiresome and surly and tries to cheat at poker. I figure that’s just human material, and him that finds in it cause for anger and dismay is just a fool for expecting better.”
So there we have it. Within the film’s opening moments, the Coen Brothers have stated the broad, overarching theme they’re going to explore for the next two hours and ten minutes: human material, especially human material carrying those better expectations that are disproportionate to the harsh realities of a fallen world filled with fallen people who will one day all face the same fate.
Buster himself is an oddity, a song-singing wanderer who really wants nothing more than to travel, sing, and play a few honest hands of poker, but his friendly demeanor tends to draw suspicion and scorn, inviting trouble. Yet Buster, an incredibly quick draw, has no problem dealing with trouble. In this opening tale (and, to some degree, in the five segments that follow), death often comes with a swift brutality, sudden and unexpected. The deaths in the stories that follow only get more nasty and cruel, as if the Coens are telling us that things (including humanity) don’t get better; they get worse. (And one of the deaths is the most heartbreaking moment I’ve seen in a movie this year.)
In “Near Aldogones,” a not-very-smart bank robber (James Franco) escapes appointments with death, but we know that death or the law (or both) will catch up with him. The dark humor and irony of this episode is perhaps the finest example of dark comedy in the film.
“Meal Ticket” gives us Liam Neeson as a traveling showman with an impressive side-show attraction: an armless, legless man (Harry Melling, above, who played Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter movies) who recites works of classic literature, the biblical story of Cain and Abel, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and more. When the novelty begins to wear off and audience numbers dwindle… Well, I won’t go there; you’ll have to see it for yourself.
“All Gold Canyon” follows the painstaking laborious work of a prospector (Tom Waits) who’s convinced there’s gold hidden in a lush meadow of an uninhabited valley. But does anyone else know about the potential of this land?
In “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) and her older brother Gilbert (Jefferson Mays) journey via wagon train to Oregon, where Gilbert has arranged a lucrative business deal which involves Alice marrying Gilbert’s business partner. Things go wrong, especially when you’re traveling an unknown, hostile country to an unknown future with a dog who won’t stop barking. The cinematography as well as the look and authenticity of the period dress, speech, and the massive wagon train itself, all come across as spectacular.
A far less spectacular setting (visually, anyway) closes the film with “The Mortal Remains,” an episode that takes place primarily within a stagecoach as five travelers converse during a nighttime journey. A pair of bounty hunters (Jonjo O’Neill, left, and Brendan Gleeson) transport the body of their latest assignment while the three other passengers, a Frenchman (Saul Rubinek), a lady (Tyne Daly), and a trapper (Chelcie Ross), get to know each other, for better or worse. This final episode is not only a wonderful exchange of philosophies and worldviews, it’s also a showcase for these fine actors.
There are no weak episodes or performances in any of these tales. There are also few happy moments, but remember, this is a Coen Brothers movies you’re watching, and if you’ve never seen one, this probably shouldn’t be your first. But if you have, you’ll want to experience the richness of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
I’ve thought a lot about this film and will continue to think about it. As mentioned above, I believe the literary setting is significant for many reasons. Not only are these tales meant to be relics from a long-ago past, their existence as printed tales is important. As we see the pages turning throughout the film, we also see both opening and closing text preceding and following the visual end of the stories. The camera doesn’t linger for long on these passages, but in some instances we learn a bit more about these individual tales. The Coens seem to be telling us that there’s more to the stories, and perhaps even that the visual tales may depart in some (possibly significant) ways from the printed stories. There are many ways you could take that, but I find those possibilities fascinating to think about. Are they, the creators of the film, adapting the printed page, making changes in order to visually tell you the story. (Talk about meta!) Are they (no pun intended) shooting straight with us?
The book and the film also seem to be presenting these stories as cautionary tales, yarns from another time that have something to warn us about in our own times: how to treat people, how to avoid conflict, the futility of greed, the potential dangers of a sheltered existence, a life without compassion, and more. But most Westerns really aren’t about the past, but rather the present (much in the same way that good science fiction isn’t about the future; it’s about the here-and-now). There’s an aspect of Westerns that were no doubt part of their popularity in the 1940s and 50s that have changed: the thought that “Well, thankfully we’ve progressed beyond those days of wild savagery and lawlessness.” But in 2018 (almost 2019), that’s no longer true, not the way it once was. We see savagery and lawlessness today in many ways from random public shootings to the insensitive, awful, and sometimes criminal way we treat others who are different from us. The Coen Brothers may just be telling us that things haven’t changed, or maybe that they’ve gotten worse. The problems we thought we’d overcome never went away; they just took a nap for awhile.
Or maybe the Coens are attempting to show us that our present behavior is primitive, unworthy of a society that should know better. Perhaps we’ve lost some (or much) of Buster Scruggs’s virtue, of Alice Longabaugh’s trust amidst an uncertain future. Maybe these episodes are reminders not only that we haven’t advanced, we’ve regressed.
In a recent article, Karen Swallow Prior, author of the book On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books, writes, speaking of the works of great literature:
It’s not only that the act of reading cultivates virtue. Just as importantly, the stories themselves impart valuable lessons in virtuous living. In portraying virtue (and vice) in action, great works of literature provide vicarious experience in exercising virtue or bearing the consequences of vice. Want to know what happens when we cast off all internal and external restraints? Read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Want to witness the destructive power of vengeance? Read Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Want to examine the implications of an existential worldview? Read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Want to encounter the indestructibility of the human spirit? Read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The process of evaluating characters in literature—good, bad, or a mixture of both, like most everyone in life—is a process that shapes our own character. It is a virtue-building enterprise.
I’m not sure Prior and the Coens have dissimilar goals. Why else would Joel Coen and Ethan Coen go to such pains to produce such a well-constructed, detailed, painfully beautiful film? Many critics have called The Ballad of Buster Scruggs dark, disturbing, meaningless, full of “vague agnosticism,”and more. My first response to such critics is to ask “Where have you been?” Have you never seen Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, No Country for Old Men, Burn After Reading (to name just a few)? If you’ve seen them, did you also find those films dark, disturbing, meaningless, and full of vague agnosticism? If so, they’ve made quite a career with that formula for over 30 years.
Second, look beyond the bleakness to the beauty of the film. What’s really being explored in these tales? One of my favorite writers, Flannery O’Connor, often referred to something that occurs in each of her stories and novels, a moment of grace. (O’Connor was also accused of being dark, disturbing, and all the rest, so the Coens are in good company.) The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.” You can think of it as favor we haven’t earned. I realize that many of the readers of this blog may not be persons of faith, and if so, perhaps we can at least agree that grace is deliverance “from enemies, affliction, or adversity.” O’Connor’s point is that we can’t even begin to understand grace on any level without the enemies, affliction, or adversity to contrast grace. Again, that moment of grace is always present in her stories, regardless of whether or not her characters embrace it.
Perhaps a theological awakening to the presence of grace isn’t what’s primarily on the minds of the Coen Brothers, but those moments of grace are right there in every story in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. But you can’t begin to see the beauty of those moments with without also seeing the bleakness, the darkness, and the need for that grace. And as odd as it may seem, some of the characters may discover that moment of grace as their lives are ending. Some may ignore it. Some may reflect on it as we also reflect.
Perhaps my favorite moment of grace in the films of the Coen Brothers comes at the very end of No Country for Old Men, a film I explored with two friends last year. (The following ventures into spoiler territory for that film.) After facing all the horrific violence and evil brought on and personified by Anton Chigurh, Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), now retired, recounts a dream he had about he and his father:
…it was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin’ through the mountains of a night. Goin’ through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin’. Never said nothin’ goin’ by, he just rode on past and he had this blanket wrapped around him and his head down. When he rode past I seen he was carryin’ fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. About the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin’ on ahead and that he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he’d be there. And then I woke up.
Almost word-for-word from Cormac McCarthy’s novel, this ending follows two solid hours of a world that seems hopeless, bleak, and meaningless. Yet Bell’s dream during the last scene is filled with hope. It’s got just a spark of Flannery O’Connor’s moment of grace, but it’s there.
We also get a moment of grace near the end of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, but with a twist. During “The Mortal Remains,” one of the bounty hunters (Jonjo O’Neill) describes how he and his partner apprehend their prey:
They’re so easily taken when they’re distracted, people are. So I’m the distractor with a little story, a little conversation, a song, a sparkle. And Clarence (Brendan Gleeson) does the thumping while their attention is on me… You know the story, but people can’t get enough of them, like little children. Because, well, they connect the stories to themselves, I suppose, and we all love hearing about ourselves, so long as the people in the stories are us, but not us. Not in the end, especially. "The Midnight Caller gets him, never me. I’ll live forever."
The words immediately following this quote are terrifying and, I believe, the whole point of the film, but the bounty hunter takes a page from Anton Chigurh’s book of philosophy, showing that he also understands human nature. The bounty hunter seeks to obscure moments of grace, distracting the person he’s hired to bring in, dead or alive (preferably dead, it would seem). If that moment of grace is obscured and you can’t see it, you can’t take advantage of it. We can easily take moments of grace and either become distracted or think they’re about someone else, and then…
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is far from pointless or meaningless. It is also far from a happy film, but again, what were you expecting from the Coen Brothers? Maybe you also weren’t expecting to learn about yourself, about our society, our world, or that spark of grace that’s available to you, but all those things are there.
Photos: Variety, The New Yorker, IndieWire, VODzilla, Thrillist, WBUR, Christ and Pop Culture