The Ballad of Buster Scruggs Challenges the Coen Brothers’ Nihilism

To be perfectly frank I originally was going to chalk up The Ballad of Buster Scruggs as a wash. Not that the Coen Brothers can ever really make a bad movie. Their movies are always going to have great performances, stunning locations, humor, slapstick, violence, bold characters, dramatic situations, intrigue, mythos, fantastic cinematography, well-envisioned worlds, concise editing, and a great score. They’re going to have all the things Westerns have, even when they’re not Westerns, which of course Ballad actually is. From the open Ballad delivers on all these things. It’s the message that the Coen Brothers deliver, especially in recent years, that has begun to trip me up.

Ballad is told in a series of six short films, most of which (particularly the early outings) more resemble parables (not new to the Coens – see: A Serious Man) than complete stories. Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) is a wunderkin gunslinger and singer who wrecks havoc through the west with a smile on his face. A cowboy (James Franco) finds himself continually brought to the noose. A showman (Liam Neeson) and his performer (Harry Melling) travel the wintery west to slowly diminishing audiences. A Prospector (Tom Waits) finds gold in a serene valley. Alice Longabough (Zoe Kazan) is part of a wagon train led by Mr. Knapp (Bill Heck) and Mr. Arthur (Grainger Haines). Finally, as the sun sets, a stagecoach brings five strangers to the Fort Morgan.

As said above, the Coen Brothers would be hard pressed to turn out a movie that doesn’t look, sound, and feel good. The West, here, feels diverse – Scruggs visits towns, the Cowboy sepia toned banks, the showman rides through frigid mountains and bare forests. The prospector’s valley is painted in a luscious green. In their eerie final installment, bright blue moonlight burns through the windows of the stagecoach. The Coens always deliver color and striking imagery. Many characters sing wonderful goofy and mournful songs. The West here feels both constructed out of the American imagination of the west, shaped first and foremost by westerns themselves, as well as alive and real in the way the Coen brothers have mastered. The world is, always, both cartoonishly goofy and gory while also being brutally real.

So why then the hesitation? Why consider it a potential wash? The issue is the same I outlined in my article about The Incredibles. As much as I admire the way the Coen Brothers say things, I don’t know how much I agree with the things they’re saying. Coen Brothers movies have a streak of nihilism through them – the universe is harsh and uncaring, people are hateful and evil and good people and good intentions don’t amount to anything (see aforementioned uncaring universe). The good are frequently punished while the bad get off scot free. It’s something the setting of a western can only exacerbate – there are fewer people, less laws, more violence and chaos and death. Nihilism unhindered. It’s something, like the message of The Incredibles, I was once totally sold on and have since grown to view as if not wholly wrong not wholly right either.

Which is why I was thankful I stuck with the entirety of Ballad. The first two stories particularly sneer at the concept that there is anything but death waiting for all of us, and to hope for anything else is a fool’s errand. But taken as a whole the movie makes a compelling argument for considering it as a cohesive whole, instead of as a television series packaged as a movie. The Coens don’t ever ease up on their notion of a chaotic and cold universe, but they populate it with characters who operate differently within those confines. Sure, the west is harsh, and sometimes good intentions don’t pan out, and death waits inevitably for all of us, but that doesn’t mean we can’t choose how we behave when faced with an uncaring universe. Maybe we laugh at it, maybe we sneer at it, maybe we refuse to invite it in, maybe we make our peace with it. Make no mistake – given open range there are some all out serious villains who abuse the freedom granted them, but the ease with which they are horrible, and the fact they are not punished for it, lends further righteousness to those who face an immoral and brutal universe and decide to either scoff at it, or, even more outrageously, act morally even though they recognize there might not be a reward for it. The final few stories never abandon the fatalism suggested in the first, but they often throw those first stories into new relief, and the inevitability of the hangman’s noose stops being a cruel universal joke and instead something that can be viewed with laughing acceptance and dignity. The sneer of the first few stories no longer looks like a sneer at the audience or at other people, but rather a confidant sneer at the universe itself: I see your tricks, and I accept them, or I reject them, and either way they don’t defeat me.

It’s difficult to talk about the stories without totally spoiling them, since there is no “act one” I can feel safe spoiling – as parables the stories are compact and don’t have a beginning middle and an end but rather a set up and a punchline. Some of the stories are good, some of the stories are okay, but the movie as a whole is, while shy of a masterpiece, still another great by master craftsmen interested in the range of the Earth and the people put on it.

I give the Ballad of Buster Scruggs 8 President Pierces out of 10 reapers.

OTHER THOUGHTS

  • Cannot overstate how much I love how musical this movie is. It’s fun to have characters that sing. I’m just finished Adventure Time, which is more or less a musical, and am rewatching bits of Bob’s Burgers, which is also more or less a musical, and there are joys and sorrows that music evokes that are simply different and unattainable with images and drama alone.
  • Of course every movie the Coens make will, for better or worse, live in the shadow of Fargo, which is a master course on offsetting a cruel universe with a beacon of hope in the form of Marge Gunderson. The nihilism in the Coen Brothers movies works best when it is challenged by sincerity (No Country for Old Men, True Grit).
  • Every once in a while Netflix pops out a worthwhile film. This is one of them. You can watch it from your home! Go watch it!
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