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The Coen Brothers vs. Death

‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ is a Western anthology film that tells a series of stories about high plains drifters, all contemplating and confronting mortality—both their own, and one even greater

Buster Scruggs holding up a wanted poster of himself Netflix

“You know the story: There are two kinds of people,” says a stagecoach passenger to his companions. It’s a statement, but it’s also a riddle, and the other riders all try to answer in turn. “Lucky and unlucky?” says one. “Pale and frail?” guesses another. “Upright and sinning?” “No,” the man smiles. “Dead or alive.”

You know the story: There are two kinds of Coen brothers movies. Funny ones and serious ones. But the gap between The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men is narrower than it seems, and their new Western anthology, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, collapses it altogether.

The title character is a gunslinger played by Tim Blake Nelson. He sings like a Soggy Bottom Boy and drawls like Sam Elliott’s narrator in Lebowski (and even wears the same kind of 10-gallon white cowboy hat). He’s also a sociopathic crackshot like Anton Chigurh, a walking contradiction who juxtaposes his creators’ twin impulses as entertainers and existentialists. Scruggs serves as Joel and Ethan Coen’s deceptively self-deprecating stand-in. Of the many nicknames Buster proudly rattles off to the audience, the one that’s printed on his Wanted poster—right above “Dead or Alive”—feels like the Coens kidding their critics: It reads, simply, “The Misanthrope.”

It might be simple misanthropy that motivates a pair of filmmakers to spend a blank check from Netflix on a bleak, violent frontier epic whose six segments are, first and foremost, about death and dying. Or maybe it’s the melancholy of aging smart-alecks trying genuinely to tangle with mortality as subject matter.

Murder was a plot point in early thrillers like Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing, but in recent years the Coens’ depictions of death have deepened. “If you would like to sleep in a coffin, it would be all right,” intones an undertaker at the beginning of True Grit, establishing the film’s morbid mood. Death takes many forms in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, from slapstick gun play to suicide to natural causes; the aforementioned stagecoach is transporting several corpses along with its human cargo.

The surface appeal of the Coens’ latest plunge into Wild West iconography following Raising Arizona, No Country for Old Men, and True Grit lies in its impeccable visualization of turn-of-the-century dime-store novels. Boasting pristine digital cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel and superb production design by Jess Gonchor, it’s a gorgeous piece of craftsmanship, even calling attention to its own aesthetic perfection through the framing device of an old-fashioned picture book whose dusty pages are punctuated by saturated color plates. But the film’s excellence is more conceptual than pictorial: Its genius lies in how its page-turning structure—one short story after another after another—works to numb, distance, and then resensitize us to the dread and loss lurking underneath even the tallest tales. Reviewing Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, Pauline Kael praised director Arthur Penn for managing to “put the sting back into death”; in the best moments of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Coens make that sting hurt like a motherfucker.

For instance: The opening section of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which follows Nelson’s character as he shoots up a roadhouse and a saloon, is about as confounding and confrontational as anything the Coens have ever made. In its conflation of cartoonish bluster and morbidly disturbing content, it’s almost like a dare to fans and haters alike. Credit for its singularly discombobulating effect goes largely to Nelson, who’s hit upon an ingenious way of playing what should be an endearing archetype—a Roy Rogers–style singing cowboy—and making him monstrous without ever descending into outright villainy. There’s a perplexing disconnect between Buster’s lively grin and his dead eyes, which put him closer to one of Westworld’s lethally programmed hosts than Alden Ehrenreich’s Hail, Caesar! yodeller.

As the segment goes on, and the body count rises, the Coens make it progressively harder to identify with—or even tolerate—Buster’s actions while doubling down on both his joviality and the assumed complicity of the spectators (in the film and in the audience). And then, just because they can, they invert the entire thing by turning their 19th-century version of The Terminator into an avatar of human frailty and maybe even divinity. To the inventory of significant circles in the Coens’ filmography—all those tumbleweeds and hula hoops—we can add both a bullet hole and a halo, which together suggest that a very bad man is going to the Good Place, and that this ascension is (to quote The Searchers) as natural as a turnin’ of the Earth.

Because the stories in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs are all so miniaturized—each runs about 20 minutes, with the James Franco–starring second episode coming in well under that mark—it’s hard to discuss them without giving away setup and punch line. Ever the virtuoso storytellers, the Coens lean into this predictability, building each narrative less around surprise than an ingrained sense of inevitability—a tactic that makes sense when you’re talking about death.

For instance, it’s not exactly hard to discern what’s going to happen to Franco’s bank-robbing antihero in the grimly absurdist, sketch-comedic “Near Algodones.” The suspense lies in guessing which one of the seemingly fatal situations he finds himself in—from being at the wrong end of a resourceful bank clerk’s rifle to getting stuck in the middle of a Comanche raid to a trip to the gallows—is going to mark his end. What’s startling is how the Coens are able to render a foregone conclusion devastating, which they do by homing in on a detail that, in an instant, brings life’s preciousness (and death’s finality) into focus. If it’s possible to be sadistically humane, “Near Algodones” fits the bill.

The question might be: to what end? After all, it’s not as if the Coens haven’t displayed a similarly vicious ambivalence in the past: Think of the mistaken-identity twist that complicates Blood Simple’s climax, or the senseless carnage that brings Burn After Reading to a close. In a brilliant and perceptive essay for Film Comment, Michael Koresky wrote that The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is attuned to the “spiritual waywardness of our current moment,” an observation that feels true, even as the film strives toward a texturally authentic but deeply artificialized evocation of an older era.

I’ve always thought that the Coens’ love for bygone Hollywood genres was only superficially regressive; the screwball humanism of The Hudsucker Proxy and the noir-tinged fatalism of The Man Who Wasn’t There extend beyond their exaggerated period backdrops. Consider how many of the Coens’ movies are either subtly or explicitly about characters facing “the future”—the paternal anxiety of The Big Lebowski; the crumbling folkie utopia of Inside Llewyn Davis; the apocalyptic final shot of A Serious Man—and the filmmakers’ journeys into the past don’t register as escape attempts. They are more like warnings that those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.

With this in mind, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’s best and most contemporary-seeming segment—the one with the most sting—is the ominously titled “Meal Ticket,” which plays despairingly and diabolically with the idea of art as refuge from reality. A superbly cast Liam Neeson plays the proprietor of a traveling show with a single attraction: an armless, legless young man (a.k.a. Dudley Dursley from the Harry Potter films) who performs, from memory, snatches of great theatrical and literary monologues, drawing impoverished, frostbitten audiences into his spell.

At first, the joke seems to be on the idea of seeing the classics rendered rote, exploited by a crafty carny pitching his brand halfway between edification and exploitation, but as “Meal Ticket” goes along—and the relationship between star and showman is unpacked along with the harsh reality of their financial situation—it opens up emotionally in a way that rivals the Coens’ best work.

Like Llewyn Davis, Harry Melling’s nameless, hapless, helpless performer is more of an interpreter than a creator, while Neeson is the very portrait of an opportunist masquerading as a patron. Their partnership is a mercenary one, and—to paraphrase F. Murray Abraham in Inside Llewyn Davis—they don’t see a lot of money here, at least not once the market starts to get more crowded.

The revelation of their newest rival on the variety-show circuit is hilarious (and Herzogian; I’m sure somewhere, Werner is smiling) but what it points to in a modern context is recognizably grotesque and terrifying. Without ever breaking their Aesopian poker face, the Coens ask questions that apply in the present tense: What does it mean to give people what they want? And what does it mean if what they want is, ultimately, so abject and so arbitrary?

Because the Coens are smart guys, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs stops short of actually including a Trump manqué among its rogues gallery of villains and killers (although I suppose Buster’s oblivious, narcissistic folk-hero shtick gets halfway there). But even if their overt ideological affiliations remain indeterminate—and even if Lefties will probably never forgive them for slandering Clifford Odets via Barton Fink, or satirizing ’60s radicalism through the depressive aimlessness of the Dude—The Ballad of Buster Scruggs feels informed by anger and skepticism rather than nihilism. It confronts the #MAGA crowd with the original sins of those who tried to make America great in the first place.

With this in mind, the narratives of “All Gold Canyon,” with Tom Waits as a stubborn prospector systematically mutilating a pristine patch of land in search of gold, or “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” starring Zoe Kazan as the most eligible (and vulnerable) member of a wagon train winding its way through Oregon, play as rebukes to the myth of manifest destiny. They’re not nostalgic so much as cautionary, problematizing old-school national values like self-reliance, the right to bear arms, and capitalism itself (“money is the root of all evil” is a running Coen theme if there ever was one). The same goes for the filmmakers’ decision in “The Gal Who Got Rattled” to stage a second Comanche raid entirely from the point of view of the terrified white characters, rendering the Native Americans as the same sort of nightmarish, invasive, faceless enemy beloved of classic Western directors. Whether this choice can be chalked up to laziness, an unexamined xenophobia, self-conscious fidelity to the material’s genre roots, or a deliberate challenge to collective prejudice is uncertain, but I’d wager that the Coens know what they’re doing.

What is certain in both “All Gold Canyon” and “The Gal That Got Rattled” is death, which brings us back to the stagecoach that serves as the setting of the sixth and final chapter. Entitled “The Mortal Remains,” it reaches back as far as John Ford’s Stagecoach while also nodding to Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (itself a movie that bowed to Ford while also folding in homages to Sergio Leone and John Carpenter). In some ways, “The Mortal Remains” is the most obviously Coenesque of the episodes, with rat-a-tat dialogue exchanged by gifted character actors (Brendan Gleeson, Tyne Daly, and Saul Rubinek, the latter providing a link to Unforgiven). In other ways, it’s the most inscrutably strange. In truth, I had a hard time focusing on the group’s back-and-forth about matters of life and death once I started wondering whether any of the unseen corpses lashed to the carriage’s roof belonged to the characters we’d seen in the previous stories. By this point, the movie itself seems to be buckling under some terrible, accrued weight.

Nobody does endings like the Coens, whose body of work contains more indelible final shots than any other filmmakers I can think of. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is no exception, but where the closing images of Barton Fink or A Serious Man are wide open to interpretation—framed as both visually and conceptually spacious—here the brothers literally close the door. After so many movies predicated on what Tony Shalhoub’s fast-talking lawyer in The Man Who Wasn’t There and Michael Stuhlbarg’s tenure-seeking Serious Man identify as “the Uncertainty Principle,” the decision to end The Ballad of Buster Scruggs on a note of absolute certainty may strike some as out of character. But it’s not that the Coens have given up on life’s mysteries so much as begun to fully accept them. There’s only one way things can end. You know the story. We all do.