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.