‘The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs’ Is Central To Understanding The Coen Brothers


The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs is an episodic Western made up of seemingly disconnected vignettes set in the Old West. Because it’s not an epic, standalone tale, and maybe because it’s being released on Netflix, it’s tempting to think of it as “lesser Coen Brothers.” Sort of in the same way we often think of an acclaimed author’s collection of short stories as somehow “lesser” than their novels. But if you scratch the surface, Buster Scruggs gets to the root of what the Coen Brothers’ work is about, and what it’s always been about.

As I was watching it I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was a Halloween story, sort of the Coen equivalent of a Treehouse of Horrors episode of The Simpsons. Which was a little odd, considering that while they do tend towards dark, and frequently explore ideas of mortality, the stories in Buster Scruggs aren’t particularly scary, or spooky. They’re certainly morbid in a lot of cases, but always in that characteristically Coen way, where death usually comes as a punchline, mortality as a cosmic joke.

At a certain point it hit me that what we’re watching in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs are campfire stories. What is it about sleeping out under the stars that makes us want to tell tall tales about death and the supernatural? Campfire tales are where spooky Halloween tales and the Western meet. It’s folklore, and what is folklore if not literal ghost stories — tales passed down through generations with each adding their own little flourish. What you hear when someone tells one are echoes of the past, of a lost way of life.

It’s an idea that’s not necessarily overt, but runs throughout The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. It opens with the credits superimposed over an actual book, titled “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and Other Tales of The American Frontier,” with the names of the entire cast flashing by before the actual movie begins, old fashioned-like. In the first vignette, Tim Blake Nelson plays Buster Scruggs, a fourth-wall-breaking Old West crooner who wears a big white hat and giant capped teeth who dresses like a dandy. He eventually sings and narrates his way into a filthy outpost saloon filled with extras you’d swear the Coens lifted wholesale from the set of Three Amigos.

In addition to being a bard, a singer, and a fine horseman, we soon discover that Buster Scruggs also murders quickly, and without compunction, often before launching into high camp dance numbers reminiscent of Channing Tatum’s sailor dance from Hail Caesar. Sure, you could read this as just the Coen Brothers having a bit of fun, showing off their flair for Busby Berkeley-style stylized choreography, and it is that, but music — music as sung by characters in the scenes or even as a plot point and not just as soundtrack — shows up in almost all their work.

The Coens famously brought about a renaissance in a particular genre of Southern folk music with O Brother Where Art Thou, and in Inside Llewyn Davis shot Oscar Isaac live singing sixties Greenwich Village versions of much older folk songs, some of which may go all the way back to the 16th century. He sang about a dying English queen, a criminal at the end of a hangman’s noose (which is an actual vignette in Buster Scruggs), and ridiculed singers with lighter topics. Again, what are folk songs if not more ghost stories? The Coens have a mania for the sung oral tradition. It feels like they’re trying to delve the oldest stories we tell about ourselves in order to understand what we are, like history and the collective consciousness is a balm to the anxiety over mortality that underpins almost all their work.

The music isn’t necessarily central to any of the vignettes in Buster Scruggs, but each vignette involves characters who sing in one way or another, with the songs themselves generally central to the story. There’s this strand of universalist morbidity, of them trying to find the strands that connect all of us throughout the ages.

Easily Buster Scruggs‘ funniest vignette is the final one, which puts two British Isles bounty hunters (played with relish by Brendan Gleeson and Jonjo O’Neill) into a carriage with a horny Frenchman (Saul Rubinek), a Calvinist prude (Tyne Daly), and a coon-hatted fur trapper played by Chelcie Ross, who’s basically Gus Chiggins from that old SNL sketch meets The Bear Man from True Grit. The Trapper’s extended monologue about getting banned from a saloon for being “too tedious” and the stout Native American woman who became his consort gave me probably the longest fit of extended laughter I’ve had watching any movie this year. Buster Scruggs is 132 minutes long and the fact that this final vignette is immediately so funny helps you forgive it for existing in the first place.

It’s also a bit of a misdirect. The carriage ride is hilarious, and then little by little it becomes… sinister. The black coat clad, whip cracking coachmen’s face is never shown, and the implication is that he’s death himself, taking the characters off to purgatory, or somewhere worse. It’s another character we see often from the Coens, akin to the motorcycling death from Raising Arizona or the mirrored shades-wearing death in O Brother Where Art Thou.

It’s one of the ways the Coens maintain unpredictability in their narratives, by establishing that the fantastic exists, that there’s a level above literal reality that’s always there, even if they’re not using it in that particular moment. It’s what I think of as “the magical cat” character, exemplified by the Gorfein’s cat in Inside Llewyn Davis, who might be a supernatural force, some agent of chaos trickster god in animal form, or he may just be a cat. The point is, he makes you wonder. Buster Scruggs introduces another magical cat in its best vignette, The Gal Who Got Rattled, starring Zoe Kazan, this time in the form of a yappy little Jack Russel terrier named Little President Pierce. Who, again, may be the cause of all its owner’s tribulations, or may just be an obnoxious little ratter. The Coens have a way of making an ambiguous universe look adorable.

All of which is to say: these vignettes are far more connected than they seem at first, both to each other and to all of the Coens’ films. If Buster Scruggs seems like a lark, like lesser Coens, like them goofing off, that might be a deliberately created impression, but it’s just a facade. This anthology takes many of the themes they’ve always explored and positions them as central to a kind of collective American consciousness. It explores the brutality of expansion, existing at the place where our most absurd dreams of the frontier collide with their crudest realities.

‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ opens in select cities this weekend. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can check out his film review archive here.