In The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, all trails lead to death. An anthology film comprised of “tales of the American frontier” (to borrow words from the hardcover book that serves as the first image), Buster Scruggs introduces us to gunslingers, prospectors, bank robbers, and pioneers, each of whom is biding his or her time before meeting often-violent and darkly comic ends. There are laughs aplenty in this lawless, arbitrary, mythological Old West, but a feel-good yarn it ain’t.
Of course, we’re all on a trail to death; the fact that Buster Scruggs winkingly nods to this existential reality marks it as a film by Joel and Ethan Coen. With a high body count and even higher joke rate, this may in fact be one of their most nihilistic ventures. Fresh off the guarded (and perhaps facetious) optimism of Hail, Caesar!, the Coen brothers have made a U-turn toward the land of Burn After Reading, Inside Llewyn Davis, and A Serious Man. In The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, they’ve given up on this world, with faint hope for the next.
As such, they’re also in the same territory as No Country for Old Men. In fact, Buster Scruggs opens with a figure who is every bit as disturbing as Anton Chigurh, the murderous psychopath from that film, played by Javier Bardem. In Buster Scruggs, Tim Blake Nelson plays the title character, a cryptic wanderer who—like Chigurh—leaves misery and pain in his wake. Yet while Chigurh did so with a dispassionately blank face, Buster wears snappy white chaps, a smile, and a song. We meet him strumming his guitar while his horse Dan keeps the clip-clopping beat, the redstone cliffs echoing his friendly baritone. Buster doesn’t set out to kill a half dozen men in a saloon, as happens only a few minutes into the film, but he’s not too bothered about those deaths either considering the others drew first. “I don’t hate my fellow man, even when he’s tiresome and surly and tries to cheat at poker,” Buster says to the camera, with a friendly grin. “I figure that’s just the human material.”
Buster is more understanding than his movie, then, which largely regards humanity as the Old Testament does shortly before the flood: undeserving of life at all, let alone anything resembling mercy or grace. Almost everyone we meet in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs leads a selfish, hollow, meaningless existence (there’s a clever, Coenesque shot from the inside of Buster’s guitar, and much of the movie seems to take place within that empty, purgatorial place). And lest we think Buster is a man apart—perhaps even some sort of metaphysical equalizing force—he soon becomes just another victim of random, gleeful violence (spoiler ahead).
Near the end of his opening segment, another gun-toting tunesmith (Willie Watson) calls Buster out and puts a bullet through his head. Buster’s ghostly form—complete with wings and a miniature harp—arises to sing a duet with his killer, against whom he seems to hold no grudge. (The tune, “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings,” is written by David Rawlings and Gillian Welch.) “I’m glory-bound,” he croons, before once again addressing the camera: “There’s just gotta be a place up ahead where men ain’t low-down and poker’s played fair. If there weren’t, what are all the songs about? I’ll see y’all there, and we can sing together and shake our heads over all the meanness in the used-to-be.”
Buster floats away, but the rest of the movie remains stuck in the “used-to-be,” a place that only gets uglier. Each segment that follows is introduced by an illustration from the aforementioned book, a “color plate” capturing a moment that is then recreated in the ensuing live action. (I couldn’t help but think of the Louis L’Amour short-story anthologies I devoured as a child.) If there is a through-line across all of this material, it’s the suggestion that living a life of any sort of consequence is pointless, because the depravity of “the human material” knows no bounds.
Consider “Near Algodones,” in which a dim-witted bank robber (James Franco) comically cheats death a number of times, until he suddenly doesn’t. (“First time?” he blithely asks the blubbering fool next to him on a hangman’s platform.) It’s like watching a cat toy with a mouse. In “The Girl Who Got Rattled,” what might be the Coens’ most affecting romance—between a pioneer woman (Zoe Kazan) and a trail guide (Bill Heck, showcasing leading-man chops)—gets undercut by ironic savagery of a particularly cruel kind. I suppose you could argue that “All Gold Canyon,” in which a prospector (Tom Waits, never better) discovers a pocket of gold in a pristine mountain valley, culminates in justice of a kind for the prospector. But if you view the segment through the eyes of the animals of the valley—which the movie’s Looney Tunes-by-way-of-Bambi aesthetic encourages—it becomes clear that the prospector was the despoiler all along.
In The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Coen brothers have given up on this world, with faint hope for the next.
And then there is “Meal Ticket,” the bleakest, least glib, and by far the best of the installments. The featured players here are Liam Neeson as a traveling showman and Harry Melling as his act: an armless, legless man reciting lofty oratory (poetry, famous speeches, Bible passages) to frigid frontier crowds who are at turns dazzled and bewildered. The bright, crisp, almost cartoonish quality that has defined much of the cinematography thus far becomes muted here, as the camera adjusts itself to snowy mountain trails and the glow of candle-lit stages. (It’s worth noting this is the first digitally shot film from the Coens, who are working with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel.) As the crowds dwindle and the temperatures drop, it becomes clear that these two men are stuck in a brutal Darwinian agreement. (Melling, who played Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films, is astonishing, hitting momentous, melodramatic notes while onstage but otherwise conveying everything with subtle, silent facial expressions.) There is no mercy in this relationship, something starkly captured by the moment Neeson’s “caretaker” shovels beans into the performer’s mouth at a campfire, not pausing to let them cool. Even Buster Scruggs might scowl and shake his head at what ensues.
What of Buster, then, and his faith in a better place up ahead? Is that sort of hope echoed anywhere else in the film? There is a curious conversation in “The Gal Who Got Rattled” between Kazan’s pioneer and Heck’s trail guide, in which he praises her for being open to new ideas. “Uncertainty. That is appropriate for matters of this world,” he affirms. “Only regarding the next do we vouchsafe certainty.” But in the context of the rest of Buster Scruggs, certainty in the next life seems naive, as well. “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings,” after all, is a novelty number sung by an angelic rodeo clown.
The movie bookends Buster’s goofy angel with a pair of devils. In the final segment, “The Mortal Remains,” two bounty hunters (Brendan Gleeson and Jonjo O’Neill) accompany the body of their latest quarry on a midnight stagecoach. Sitting across from them are three other passengers (Saul Rubinek, Tyne Daly, and Chelcie Ross), each distasteful in their own comic way. It soon becomes clear that they, too, are being escorted to certain doom. (“We’re harvesters of souls,” Gleeson’s Irishman declares.) Before the coach pulls up to the dark, gloomy hotel that marks the end of the road, the Irishman sings a traditional song, identified in the credits as “The Unfortunate Lad,” in a lovely, defeatist lilt: “Get six pretty maidens to carry my coffin, and six pretty maidens to bear up my pall / And give to each of them bunches of roses, that they may not smell me as they go along.”
Buster doesn’t hold our humanity against us; that’s why he believes he’s glory-bound. But the dying man in “The Unfortunate Lad” has no thoughts of the hereafter. His last words are for this mortal world. Buster calls this place we live in the “used-to-be,” but in the Coen brothers’ giddily misanthropic movie, it feels like that’s all there is.