“You can’t help but compare yourself against the old-timers,” says Sheriff Ed Tom Bell in the opening of the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men. “Can’t help but wonder how they’d have operated these times.” Like the sheriff, the Coen brothers are haunted by the “old-timers” of cinema—the great tradition of movies gone before. In the 25 movies they’ve released to date, the past takes on many forms. It can manifest in cultural traditions, or in a transgression of those traditions, or in explosive violence—often all at once. These are the hallmarks of the best Coen movies: jubilant cliché meets moral ambiguity meets brutality; Minnesota nice meets botched kidnap meets woodchipper. But for the Coens, the plundering of the past is most evident in their use of genre.
They’ve done comedy, tragedy, noir, Western, spy movie, romance, drama, crime caper, and combinations of all of the above. They usually amplify some special facet of the genre in question, blowing it up to surreal and funny proportions that turn the movie’s attention back on cinema itself. In Blood Simple, for example, they pay homage to noir but turn its volume all the way up: Where Otto Preminger would have lit the mysterious woman’s face from the side, the Coen brothers pick out a few bright features in a sea of darkness.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, available to stream on Netflix on Friday, is the pair’s latest venture into Western territory. Originally conceived as a television series, it is now being presented as an anthology of six shorter movies. Between each story, pages in a storybook about the Old West turn. The movies are related thematically—in each, a character dies—but they don’t cohere into anything like a story. In fact, the vignettes are often plotless themselves.
Instead, each story is a journey to the heart of a storytelling cliché, like a miner hacking at the dirt in search of a gold vein. We open onto the biggest cliché of them all, Monument Valley, where John Wayne wandered in The Searchers. Between its uncanny peaks rides Tim Blake Nelson as Buster Scruggs himself. He is singing a duet with his horse, instantly taking the Western theme to the realm of magical absurdism. Scruggs enters a tavern and slaps the dust from his body, which hangs in the air in the shape of a man as he walks away. The story is a quick-draw fable, with the lesson that there’s always somebody with a faster hand just over the horizon. As in other Coen brothers’ movies, a bullet to the head comes from nowhere.
With not much plot to speak of, and with so much focus on landscape and mood, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs can be a bit tedious. There also isn’t much variation in the cast. Zoe Kazan and Tyne Daly pop up in two stories, but the rest of the characters are white men. There are a lot of great actors here—particularly Harry Melling, who has come a very long way from his debut as Dudley in the Harry Potter movies—but it’s all a bit monotonously masculine.
Then again, repetition with slight variation is the hallmark of this anthology. Execution by hanging crops up multiple times, as do attacks by Indians, odd animals, weird outsiders, and snow. There are some great jokes, as when James Franco is noosed for the second time, having escaped once. They guy next to him is crying. Franco says sympathetically, “First time?”
In the vignette called “Meal Ticket,” Melling plays The Limbless Thrush, a sideshow act with no arms or legs who reads a weird mashup of classic speeches—Shakespeare’s Sonnet XXIX, the Gettysburg Address, and so on. Liam Neeson, his handler, eventually trades him in for a chicken who can do math. The Thrush is doing here essentially what the Coen brothers are doing with this movie; blending a hit parade of quotations from the canon of movie Westerns, producing something a bit boring.
By far the most visually striking section of Buster Scruggs is a story called “All Gold Canyon.” First, we see a page of illustration in a book, showing a man looking outward from a tree. Then, the sun rising over a mountain range. A valley of American sublimity. An unspoiled Eden. A stag runs and an owl ruffles his feathers as a singing man approaches—Tom Waits. He starts panning for gold, and slowly, slowly follows the evidence until he has found a great bright seam running through the earth. What comes next is a kind of Cain and Abel struggle, a Biblical showdown between two men against the backdrop of nature’s beauty, a beauty that will be inevitably destroyed by the very discovery that forms the story.
In an homage to John Ford’s Stagecoach interior scenes, the last section of the movie, called “The Mortal Remains,” shows five people crammed into a little carriage, debating whether or not you can divide people into categories. “People are like ferrets and beavers,” one says. “All the same.” In one sense, at least, he is certainly correct. The journey they are on is an inexorable one—like the journeys of Anton Chigurh of No Country for Old Men or Marge Gunderson of Fargo—and there’s no telling what comes at its end. Every story in Buster Scruggs features death, delivered bluntly and without much concern. But what comes afterward? Nobody knows.
This is a movie about the hallmarks of Western moviemaking, and it’s full of random murder, suggesting a connection between cliché and death. In one sense, cliché is death’s opposite. Clichés are artistic insights, calcified into templates that get handed down through the generations. Unlike death, they are not random. Instead of being meaningless, they contain a core of meaning that has since been lost with overuse. Like love, clichés are corny and very, very comforting.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs isn’t all that entertaining, because it’s not supposed to be. It’s an invigorating investigation of the human urge to create art, and its relationship to our own mortality. This, too, is a pillar of the Coen brother’s movies. Even a buoyant comedy like The Big Lebowski has an opacity to it, a sense of futility. The world is made of coincidences, not meaning, the Coen comedies say. That’s a very dark idea, disguised inside the jokes.
Buster Scruggs is beautiful but also monotonous and a bit repellent. It relates to No Country that way, which was also just death after death, a monstrous plowing of screen time. Where, at the end of Buster Scruggs, have we gotten? The movie features many journeys, but it also feels as if we’re going in circles. If there’s a destination, then it must lie in the journey itself; the act of making movies. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is one of the strangest and least legible of the Coen brothers’ films, but it also revels in their sheer joy in creating movies. If the old-timers of Hollywood could look over the Coens’ shoulders, I’m sure they’d be deeply confused, while seeing a little of themselves nonetheless.