The new film from Joel and Ethan Coen, called The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and available to stream on Netflix, is an anthology of six vignettes about life in the Old West. Each story stands alone—the only apparent link between them is that they are presented as the different parts of an antique compendium of the same name: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and Other Tales of the American Frontier, with Color Plates. The film’s first shot is this worn volume, and each tale begins and ends with the camera’s fading back to the book, whose pages have been turning correspondingly. Many movies open with such an image—of a large old tome opening to introduce the narrative that the film will then act out. But many of these films are adaptations of fairy tales or legends that do actually have real-life book versions; their book-framings and established literariness provide a springboard for the new, canon-widening film interpretation at hand. The book The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is not real, and the film’s incessant reminder of its governance and mnemonic insistence of its materiality offers a very specific way to read the film: not really as a new Western, but as an exploration of the short story.
Buster Scruggs is deeply embedded in this particular literary tradition, emphasizing stylistic conventions reminiscent of the venerable masters who shaped it, like Guy de Maupassant, O. Henry, and H.H. Munro. It traffics in conventions of the Western genre, too (bank robbery, gold panning, covered wagons, massacre-by-Comanche), but these are the backdrops the vignettes need to fulfill their promised topical patchwork of the Old West. The main concern of each tale in Buster Scruggs is not its genre fidelity but, as in the quintessential short story, the particular buildup to an ultimate revelation or twist.
The first story, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” drops us in on Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), a scrawny, singing, gun-slinging outlaw, whose name (better suited for a stray dog than a cowboy protagonist), sunny disposition, rolling elocution, and lettered vocabulary all make him an unexpected candidate for fighting in dingy desert outpost bars with characters described in the credits as “Cantina Scum.” In this tale, the Coens are as upfront as possible about cleverly, dissonantly upending the etiquette of the Western genre, and that seems like enough of an undertaking until Buster proves to be as deadly as he is cheerful; he is more than a crack shot, he’s impossibly, laughably brilliant at shooting. Turns out, he’s also a crackpot, and he psychotically duels and draws his way westward, unable to find his equal but on his way towards a climax more paradoxical than himself.
The Coen Brothers are longstanding lovers of incongruity; at least, their films frequently fortify themselves with the surprising symbiosis of strange narrative bedfellows, from jarring tonal details like the poetic musings of the goofy two-bit criminal Hi in Raising Arizona, to surprising genre bricolage, like how O Brother Where Art Thou is a comic retelling of the Odyssey and a prison break drama and somehow also a folk musical. And “Buster Scruggs,” in which a melomaniac turns out to be an actual maniac, certainly delivers in this way. But this incongruity, which is at the center of the story, soon fades as the predominant messenger of the story’s anticipated twistiness. [SPOILER] The first episode’s ending, in which Buster, who has artistically killed many people, is killed in turn by the straightforward skill of a singing drifter, has nothing to do with incongruity. It’s classic irony: an unexpected event which undercuts the main narrative. This is a traditional short-story move, but it’s also makes two deeper points—it’s a reminder that the greatest, most stylish gunslinger in the West (a man of prodigious talent and education) is destructible, fallible, and mortal, and it’s also absurd. Buster Scruggs ends on a note just as farcical as it is existential, thereby forcing the two concepts to overlap. This will become the main theme relatable to all six stories in this collection: the sheer absurdity of the notions of justice and payoff in an existence which is minute, precarious, and utterly erasable.
After “Buster Scruggs” comes “Near Algodones,” in which a gruff cowboy (James Franco) attempts to rob a bank, but is no match for a farcical system of local crime-fighting (or possibly providential comeuppance). In “Meal Ticket,” most of which is montage, a gruff traveling impresario (Liam Neeson) helps, day in and day out, to prepare his only act, a double bilateral amputee (Harry Melling) who hauntingly recites “Ozymandias,” Shakespeare, and “The Gettysburg Address” from an illuminated caravan stage, until the day he no longer draws crowds. And in “All Gold Canyon,” a gruff prospector (Tom Waits) searches for a gold mine in a beautiful deserted valley—but maybe someone else is searching, too.
[SPOILER] As Buster Scruggs is killed by another singing cowboy who emerges out of nowhere and seems to have has nothing to do with the story, the cowboy in “Near Algodones” spends the film escaping a hanging only to be mistaken immediately thereafter for the culprit in some other crime and dealt with accordingly. In “Meal Ticket,” the disabled orator, whose relationship to his mysterious impresario seems about to be illuminated, worries about his livelihood after the impresario buys a computational chicken. And in “All Gold Canyon,” the prospector is threatened by a character we’ve never seen before, again coming out of nowhere. Like the classic short story, these vignettes don’t explain themselves—fully, or even partially. If they have deep and knotty backstories propelling their plots, we don’t see them. The idea seems to be that they don’t matter.
The fact that Buster Scruggs offers mere peeks into the lives of its characters makes these already incomprehensible narratives significantly harder to digest. But the questions they produce are surely more interesting than any conclusive takeaways; short stories, the Coens suggest, offer flickers at best, not full illumination. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs establishes its understanding of short stories as ultimately determined by their endings—and to emphasize this, at the end of every tale, the camera shows the audience the last line of the printed story. The filmed interpretations cannot depart for too long, still looking to these final, written words; the stories tether themselves to the only concrete takeaways they have—seeming to stress their desperation to define themselves, and mean things, in an atmosphere which seems to be trying to set a record for its withholding of definition and meaning.
What we get instead of meaning and definition is termination. Many of the stories are suddenly, fatefully cut off before their putative meanings can be shown (or feature protagonists who die all of a sudden, thus cutting off their stories). This pattern emphasizes not the meaninglessness or randomness inherent in the construction of these stories, but the meaninglessness and randomness that seem to govern existence itself. This is how the film truly deals with its setting and genre, embracing (and therefore defining) the Old West not as a stateless geographical setting but as a State of Mind or even, more abstractly, as a set of philosophical anti-principles. It is borderline anarchic, toying with the suggestion that human-delivered justice and morality are compromised, random, premature, or just plain wrong— and that the fates of others should be cradled by a higher, just power, but are instead ham-handedly or malevolently manipulated, or cut down by flawed, opportunistic, accident-prone mankind. This both overthrows and embraces the conventions of the short story, whose ironic twists seem in many cases to follow moral rubrics, while stressing that true answers lie in a form much vaster that itself.
In the fifth story, “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” two siblings, Gilbert and Alice Longabaugh (Jefferson Mays and Zoe Kazan) are heading west by wagon train. Cholera takes Gilbert, leaving Alice alone with his yappy terrier and extorting servant. Alice seeks the advice of Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), an archetypical square-jawed, well-intentioned cowboy, as well as Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines), the experienced leader of the wagon train. [SPOILER] Billy Knapp proposes to Alice—perhaps merely as a way to help her out of her predicament, perhaps not. She, after deliberation, shows signs of fondness and agrees. But there is a misunderstanding during a very sudden and random-seeming raid by Native American soldiers, and Alice ends up making a heartbreaking, spontaneous decision without realizing there might be more information to consider, leaving, of all people, Mr. Arthur to pick up the pieces. The last line of the story is suitably crushing: “Mr. Arthur had no idea what he would say to Billy Knapp.” It’s also the first line: the caption under the illustration on the color plate that lies before the story’s beginning. The ending, with its tragic plot twist, is designed to be the primary focal point of the whole tale. It captures as fully as possible the strange sadness and incomprehensibility that, we suddenly see, all the previous tales have hinted at.
In its excavation of the conventions of the short story, the six-part Buster Scruggs takes, with each story, a repetitive shot at the same theme: seemingly unnatural death. The short story format emphasizes the isolation of these instances from one another—but then certainly the reader’s intuitive work is finding how they are the same. With and within its form then, Buster Scruggs underscores the inevitability and expectation of repeated, selfsame tragedy that we can’t explain cosmically though we can attribute to various literal causes. Indeed, in “Meal Ticket,” the young disabled artist recites “The Gettysburg Address,” which was first spoken on a battlefield where seven thousand men were left dead and about thirty-three thousand were wounded, and which promised that these deaths would not have been gathered in vain. “Ozymandias,” another recitation, laments that everyone, even the mightiest of us, is ultimately forgotten. These two pieces insist, with their seemingly clashing readings, the ease with which a violent death will be forgotten by a nation where violent death is a norm, despite their sacrifices being inscribed into a national history—but also the fragility and precariousness of having an existence in the first place, especially when at the mercy of factors to manifold and mysterious to comprehend.
Buster Scruggs reads the form of the short story, in its elegiac smallness, as offering to readers this same sense of attempting to understand the universe, or fate, or God; tiny, futile endeavors which are doomed from the start and too measly to have even the capacity for a fighting chance. This is a sad point to reach, especially in a film which begins as an exuberant celebration of a literary form. But, as one of the original short stories (if I may refer to the Book of Genesis this way) argues, nothing threatens jubilation like the realization of one’s own powerlessness and absence of knowledge.
In the last story, “The Mortal Remains,” five coach passengers heatedly discuss faith and love while racing through the evening in a black carriage that can’t stop, no matter how loudly they may call up to the shadowy, unseen driver. There is a body strapped to the top of their vehicle. The body has been brought by two of the travelers, chipper bounty hunters (Brendan Gleeson and Jonjo O’Neill). When they reach their destination and all climb out, the black carriage turns around in great haste, as if there is no road left ahead of them. These elements slowly suggest these people have really been dead all along (as classic a short story plot-twist-ending if there ever were one) and are crossing to another plane. This comes as a surprise, but these passengers (Tyne Daly, Chelsie Ross, and Saul Rubinek) begin to accept it, walking slowly into a giant dark house where they are apparently expected, towards the center staircase flooded in streaming white light—the story and the film both ending, true to form, on the most certain of conclusions and the most unknowable of questions. We all may get our just deserts in the end, or we may not, but what does it actually matter, and how can we ever really know?