The Coens have crafted dozens of screenplays, directed classic films and won Oscars, WGAs and Golden Globes. Now they venture into the world of online streaming with their first Netflix film, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.”
The film illustrates six tales of the Old West, starting with singing gunslinger Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), continuing on with a cowboy trying not to be hanged (James Franco), to a pair of traveling showmen (Liam Neeson and Harry Melling), to an old prospector digging for gold (Tom Waits), to a girl who gets rattled on the prairie (Zoe Kazan) and finishing with an odd group of individuals in a rickety old coach (Jonjo O’Neill, Brendan Gleeson, Saul Rubinek, Tyne Daly, Chelcie Ross).
The different stories never intertwine or have interacting characters, instead serving as a collage that illustrate the themes present in pretty much every Coen brothers film: the wondering of life’s purpose, the corruption of evil, the unpredictability inherent in living and the just rewards of simple good actions.
It is both a celebration and a condemnation of Western stories, the tales of rough riders thrillingly told but with an admission of the failure of their hubris. For every glorious gunfight, there is a sad death scene. For every strike of gold, there’s a harrowing betrayal. For every moment of marital happiness, there’s a sad reminder of the unpredictability of life. For the Coens, one can sense their idolization of the Western, but they incorporate the knowledge of history, bloodshed, backstabbing and cruel ambition. The Western is an inherently American genre, mythmaking in its tales of bravado and open plains, of adventure and glory, but much like America is full of contradictions, the Western is too. Our myths guide our national heritage, but the truth about our past is fraught with inconsistencies.
Though all the different stories belong in the same world and have the same pacing, they are disjointed at times. Some stories are stronger than others and some feel less consequential. And like so many of the Coen’s other films, sometimes they’re just a little too cerebral for their own good.
All in all, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is another strong chapter in the Coen’s cannon, more a peripheral entry than a starring one. It weaves several personal stories against a grand landscape to give a very balanced yet stylized interpretation of the Old West.