The Coen brothers’ latest film ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ feels less like a film and more like an exercise in mythology and world building. Doing away with conventional film structure, TBOFBS is a collection of self-contained short films which share little but the brother’s vision of the American West just after the Civil War. The collection is presented as adaptations from a book of stories, distinguished from one and another by some slightly cheesy CGI page turning.
It features some fantastic, albeit brief, performances by a ludicrous cast that includes Liam Neeson, James Franco, Brendan Gleeson, Tom Waits, and Zoe Kazan . With the help of cinematographer, Bruno Delbonnel, the Coen brothers craft a beautifully aesthetic rehashing of the American mid-west that, despite tinkering on the edge, rarely feels over-stylised or kitsch.
At its heart, TBOBS offers a counter rendering to the mythologised American West which typically portrays a nationalistic meritocracy in which only the noblest and most virtuous of the nation’s patrons survive. The Coen Brothers reconfigure this representation in line with a more existential outlook where it is nothing but chance that decides whether one will prosper, starve, live, or die.
There is a definite sense of fatalism at play throughout; if the landscape doesn’t kill you, money, or lack thereof, will. And even then, if you are managing to avoid your mortality, there is a sense that you may as soon be hit by a stray bullet, sentenced to hang for a crime you didn’t commit, attacked by a horde of native Americans, or even end up killing yourself.
And while virtue in Hollywood’s West enables its beholder to confront scores of bullets and arrows before walking away with little more than surface wounds, in the Coen brother’s equivalent, these bullets hit and they most certainly kill, regardless of who you are. It is very much a wild west, but not one in which protagonists and heroes are exempt from its whim.
The film is far from being a lugubrious watch though, for the Coen Brothers have offset what might be seen as a fairly pessimistic outlook with their distinctive playful whimsy which they use to imbue a bizarre sense of nonchalance into the film and its characters. This tone has double effect; on the one hand, it manages to effectively offset the harshness of this (often fleeting) existence with the comic, and on the other, it’s used to create a distinct sense of this life’s absurdity. This is perfectly represented by the cowboy’s (James Franco) comment to a fellow man also sentenced to hang: ‘first time?’.
The multiplicity of the films’ narratives lends itself perfectly to democratising the West’s mythology. By doing away with a singular story, the Coen’s are able to break free from the narrative constraints demanded by a conventional film; i.e. not killing your protagonist within the ten minutes. And in doing so, they are freed to offer a stylised depiction of an era unmarred by individual subjectivity or the constraints of narrative structure.
Broken down into its component parts, this film is almost fantastic. It’s conceptually intriguing, aesthetically beautiful, has some brilliant performances and sounds great, but the sense of disjuncture created by the short narratives feels just a little too brief. As soon as the plots are established, the characters developed and the narrative breaks into its swing, the chapter comes to an abrupt end. I can’t help but feel they would’ve been better off with fewer narratives. Regardless, this is a deceptively intelligent piece of cinema that represents a brilliant divergence from the typical Netflix fanfare.