The films of the Coen brothers are replete with dark ironies, but few rival the fact that the staunchest moralists working in Hollywood today have been so consistently labeled as cynics or dismissed as nihilists. Their impeccable new effort, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, is the latest in a streak of masterpieces now over a decade long, starting with 2007’s No Country For Old Men.
The format of Buster Scruggs requires some explanation. It is a set of six short western stories collected in an anthology, framed as entries in a literal storybook from the nineteenth century. While neither actors nor plot points carry over from one vignette to the next, common motifs and themes present themselves more and more insistently the longer one dwells on the set. These stories are a pleasingly multifarious bunch, ranging from the slapstick to the serene, but they are united by ideas and archetypes that run through the Coens’ entire body of work: hapless crooks, abrupt bursts of violence, and a pervasive sense of the futility of all earthbound endeavors. To a devotee, the whole thing might even feel comfortingly familiar, if only the Coens didn’t seem so determined to keep viewers from getting their bearings, oscillating through a wild array of tones and aesthetics. There has always been a larger-than-life aspect to their filmography, but The Ballad of Buster Scruggs takes its storybook milieu to heart and swiftly dispenses with any pretensions to realism. The painterly vistas of the Old West are often rendered in bright colors, the score by frequent Coen collaborator Carter Burwell is sweeping and old-fashioned, and the stories themselves are similarly quaint, often feeling like tall tales or fables.
Like all the best moralists, the Coens are keen – even merciless – observers of human nature. Consider the second story, “Near Algodones,” which opens with an outlaw (James Franco) standing outside a bank. His scruples silently overcome, he enters. “Ever been robbed?” he asks the teller, and produces a revolver before the man can finish relating the disastrous outcomes of two previous attempts. Naturally, things go poorly, and a scant ten minutes of screentime later, the outlaw is dead by hanging. This story would be too simple if I did not enact it every day with my own vices. Though we are presented with ample proof that sin leads inevitably to suffering, we continue to delude ourselves that this time it will be different. If the consequences are not immediate, the reprieve is a license to continue; if they are swift, we complain of unfairness.
The question of fairness turns out to be central to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, in which life is a game with rules the players cannot agree upon. “You got me fair and square,” the teller concedes to the outlaw at gunpoint, before ducking behind the counter for his own shotgun(s). After being sentenced to death while unconscious (“It was a fair trial,” the leader of the posse assures him), the outlaw’s only thought with the noose around his neck is to complain that the “son of a bitch back at the bank don’t hardly fight fair, in my opinion.”
Certainty proves to be a poor strategy in the game of life and death. The fifth story, “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” opens with a dispute over the cough of a tenant in a boarding house. “He was not a contagious cougher,” insists the landlady. “I do not rent to such.” However, the cough spreads, and soon a man is dead. His sister, Alice (Zoe Kazan), finds herself mired in a web of logical conundrums – a hired hand who may or may not be owed the high price of $400, a brother in an unmarked grave who may or may not have had the aforementioned sum in his waistcoat. “I never had his certainties,” Alice confides in potential suitor Billy Knapp (Bill Heck). “I suppose it is a defect.” Knapp disagrees:
Uncertainty… That is appropriate for matters of this world. Only regarding the next are we vouchsafed certainty… I believe certainty regarding that which we can see and touch, it is seldom justified, if ever. Down the ages, from our remote past, what certainties survive? And yet we hurry to fashion new ones, wanting their comfort.
In such a cosmos, the only constant is chaos. The outlaw is saved from his first hanging by a Native American war party, who slaughter his executioners and, laughing at his fate, leave him dangling from a tree. Choosing to live outside the laws of society, the outlaw survives for a time in the state of nature, preserved by the chaos of existence. However, without the protection of these laws, he is condemned without a trial and killed for a crime he did not commit. In contrast, when another Native American war party appears at the end of Alice’s story, she is unable to reckon with the chaos. Wrongly believing she is doomed to an unspeakable fate at their hands, she kills herself, unaware that chance would have spared her. Human understanding is limited in the Coens’ universe; misplaced certainty is a trap into which Alice tragically falls.
The imagery of gaming and gambling unites the first and last stories, which bookend the film. The first, the titular “Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” involves a saloon standoff in a town called “Frenchman’s Gulch,” where the eponymous singing cowboy (Tim Blake Nelson) refuses to play another man’s poker hand. In the sixth, “The Mortal Remains,” a gambling Frenchman (Saul Rubinek) makes the following claim:
We each have a life. Each a life. Only our own… I know that we must each spin our own wheel and play our own hand… How a man wager, it is decided by who he is, by the entirety of his relation to poker, right up until the moment of that bet. I cannot bet for you. Pourquoi pas? I cannot know you, not to this degree. We must each play our own hand.
Buster Scruggs saunters out of the wilderness remarking, “Frenchman’s Gulch: this town is new to me.” However, though the rules forbid carrying firearms into the saloon, this civilized society is little different than the savage state of nature from which Scruggs has just emerged. Considered as a whole, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs forms an American mythology of sorts, dramatizing the formation of government of the people, by the people, for the people from the raw material of man and nature. The Frenchman, with his doctrine of radical individualism, is Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the devil of this creation myth, who ousted religion and tradition from the public square, instead placing legal authority solely in the will of living man. (Knowing the Coens’ attention to minute details, it is no coincidence that the teller in “Near Algodones” was previously robbed by a man whose “pappy was from France.”)
Rousseau posited that man is good by nature and made evil by the limitations of society: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in shackles.” The Ballad of Buster Scruggs takes a decidedly bleaker view of human nature. Per Billy Knapp, “To have no family and sleep on the ground” is no pretty fate, but the state of nature is not easily escaped when the bonds and commitments between men are rendered fragile by their inherent selfishness. This is seen most pointedly in the third story, “Meal Ticket,” which centers on the relationship between a limbless thespian (Harry Melling) and a nearly mute impresario (Liam Neeson). The thespian, a repository of art and culture ranging from Shakespeare to the Bible, is the rational part of man; the fur-wearing impresario is the animal part. The former is dependent on the latter, who cares for all of his physical needs, but in a society focused only on the immanent and tangible, this purely rational being is helplessly at the mercy of popular taste. There is a bleak irony in his repeated dramatic recitations of the refrain from the Gettysburg Address: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people will not perish from the earth.” It is precisely the people who will tire of him, and tragically, when they do, it is he who perishes from the earth.
In the fourth story, “All Gold Canyon,” a prospector (Tom Waits) works arduously to unearth a pocket of gold in an idyllic canyon, only to be ambushed by an outlaw the moment he finds it. “You shot me in the back!” he howls, outraged at this unfairness. But the wound is not fatal, and the prospector prevails over his assailant. “He didn’t hit nothin’ important,” he cries. “Just guts is all you hit!” There is something more to man than “just guts” in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, even if Scruggs does take a rather dim view of him. “Misanthrope? I don’t hate my fellow man,” he protests, “Even when he’s tiresome and surly and tries to cheat at poker. I figure that’s just the human material, and him that finds cause in it for anger and dismay is just a fool for expecting better.”
Yet while you would be a fool to expect better in this life, Buster Scruggs seems to harbor some hope for the next. When we first meet him, he is in the desert, singing about a utopian vision: “Dan, can you see that big green tree where the water’s running free and it’s waiting there for you and me?” (This is a common Coen device: recall the dreams that conclude Raising Arizona and No Country For Old Men.) Yet Buster knows that to expect satisfaction in this life is a trap; he sings of a “devil, not a man” who “spreads the burning sands with water,” and at this point, one may recall the well by the bank in the second story, with its sign reading “BAD WATER.” Perhaps Stoic resolve is what allows Buster to shuffle off this mortal coil with comical deadpan resignation, but hope is what sends him to heaven. As his spirit rises, winged and harp-playing, from his corpse, he persists, “There’s just gotta be a place up ahead where men ain’t lowdown and poker’s played fair. If there weren’t, what are all the songs about?”
However, while songs and stories can lift our attentions up beyond the sad material of this world, they can also serve a more devious purpose, distracting us from the reality that we will all die. The final story, “The Mortal Remains,” depicts a trip by stagecoach to the afterlife, where a body is taken up a staircase into white light and no possessions are retained. An angel adorns one door, a devil the other, and this pair seems to correspond to the duo of bounty hunters (self-described “harvesters of souls”) in the stagecoach. The Englishman (Jonjo O’Neill) may be the very same devil who Buster Scruggs sang of:
You know the story, but people can’t get enough of them… 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 live forever.
The Englishman tells his stories to distract, not to educate, and he himself is always learning but never coming to knowledge of the truth. When asked if his victims ever make sense of the world before they pass, he shrugs, “How would I know? I’m only watching.” The Irishman (Brendan Gleeson), however, tries to offer comfort and guidance. He sings “The Unfortunate Lad,” about a young man – likely stricken by a venereal disease – who laments, “My body is injured and sadly disordered, all by a young woman, my own heart’s delight.” Unlike his counterpart, the Irishman does not distract his listeners from death, but directs their attention to it; the other passengers are not distracted when he sings, but moved and contemplative. The discussion of “disorder” evokes the Platonic idea that the soul ought to be ordered properly in preparation for death, and this tune opens and closes the film, reinforcing the centrality of this idea. The Coens are not just trying to distract us; much of their career, after all, has been dedicated to the creation of the cinematic memento mori: remember that you will die. The “cynicism” of their films, the seemingly arbitrary nature of the death and hardship they inflict on their characters, is only a reminder that God sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust, and they do not kid those who only want to be good for the sake of material comfort. Virtue does not make life comfortable; if it is true virtue, it is for its own sake. Rarely have the Coens been more explicit about such intentions than in this cautionary tale for those tempted to find their consolation in this world rather than that to come. It is a tradition of mine to watch their Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ every Easter. Perhaps, from now on, I will watch The Ballad of Buster Scruggs every Ash Wednesday.