The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is A-grade hack-you-up-at-the-funny-bone Coen brothers cinematic nihilism. In its six chapters, all separate stories of fantastically varying tone and tenor, Joel and Ethan Coen tell a biblical tale of the Wild West where meaninglessness and folly is Ecclesiastical in its reach and senseless suffering is so prevalent that even Job himself would blush at his good fortune. Highly entertaining.
The outré auteurs start things off with “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” the story of the most feared gunman in the West who sings and shoots his way through town with zealous goofiness and jarring gore. It’s fitting that the Coens begin with this story as it introduces the film’s weighty themes with cartoonish zaniness—think Raising Arizona rather than No Country for Old Men—and therefore makes the bleakness of what follows just a bit more palatable. Finally, the placement of this story works because the titular character Buster Scruggs answers a question many viewers might have about the film: is this a hateful movie because it is so morbid and gleeful in its presentation of existence as devoid of hope and of human nature as ceaselessly brutal and savage? Buster Scruggs’ response comes in the form of a comment on his wanted poster. In that poster his name is presented as “Buster Scruggs ‘The Misanthrope.’” Scruggs takes offense at this characterization replying, “Misanthrope? I don’t hate my fellow man. Even when he’s tiresome, and surly, and tries to cheat at poker I figure that’s just the human material.” Then, drawing on his inner Marcus Aurelius, Scruggs concludes, “and him that finds in it cause for anger and dismay is just a fool for expecting better.”
Next up is “Near Algodones” the tale of bank robber who finds himself at the end of a noose twice before his story concludes. Here the Coens play with their themes of the inevitability of fate, the certainty of death, and the cruelty of human nature. The bankrobber can’t escape his fate of hanging and when the gallows finally do drop him the sound of the gathered crowd is one of applause and not abhorrence.
In “Meal Ticket,” the most bleak of the six stories, a limbless orator named Harrison entertains the sparse towns of the West with theatrical presentations of passages from Shelley, the Bible, Shakespeare, and Lincoln. His caretaker, an impresario, confronted with the falling revenue of Harrison’s act and the potential of a more profitable act, must decide his afflicted charge’s fate. In the end the impresario endorses Portia’s plea that “the quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.” It droppeth, indeed.
“All Gold Canyon” follows and here we have the most hopeful of the six stories. This one features a delightful Tom Waits as an eccentric and grizzly gold prospector working among the wild expanse of uninhabited western mountainscapes. Even here, however, his character isn’t safe from human predation and violence. Don’t worry, at least there is a semi-happy ending to this one.
Not so with “The Gal Who Got Rattled” a tragic story of the Oregon Trail. This is a love story set against the perilous backdrop of the historic wagon route and it contains the film’s two strongest performances in the couple of Alice Longabough, played by Zoe Kazan, and Billy Knapp, played by Bill Heck. This part feels like it could have been stretched into its own feature film but it’s probably best it didn’t because its brevity secures its poignancy.
The film concludes with its most gloomy and surreal episode, “The Mortal Remains.” This part is about a coach ride five travelers take towards the mysterious Fort Morgan. Fort Morgan is probably a symbolic stand in for death if the lugubrious mise-en-scène and foreboding discussion of the characters is any indication. It provides the perfect punctuation mark to an outstanding film.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is bizarrely eclectic and expertly directed. Rarely is a film of obvious philosophical concern presented with such artistry that the philosophy is muted by the raw entertainment of the picture. Enjoy the film yourself with your Netflix subscription or, better yet, go see it on the big screen if it’s still playing in your area.
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