Joel and Ethan Coen have always been beholden to the themes and paradoxes of the western: the brutality and injudicious pursuit of wealth, the sovereignty of violence, the feeling of ostracization, that me-against-the-world anti-heroism. The libidinous treachery and revenge gone awry in their brooding, ballsy debut, Blood Simple, is steeped in a noirish bastardization of western archetypes, and the sun-scorched Midwestern vistas and bumbling malfeasance of Raising Arizona wouldn’t be out of place in one of Anthony Mann’s productions. And, of course, there’s their first proper foray into the genre, True Grit, a film with obvious reverence for the works of Mann, Howard Hawks, and John Ford. With No Country for Old Men, their stoical and sparse adaptation of the novel by Cormac McCarthy, they transposed a classical chase story revolving around money to modern America, making a sublimely restrained modern western that, like the films of Sam Peckinpah, cogitates on the nature of violence without postulating any easy answers.
The Coen brothers’ newest film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, is a paean to the western, a silly, mood-shifting shaggy-dog anthology that feels at once structurally ambitious and somehow inchoate, almost perfunctory at times. It comprises six separate stories, concerning a mélange of typical reprobates and shoot-you-in-the-back gunmen. There are also a few innocent souls, though most of them suffer at the hands of the reprobates and gunmen. (Zoe Kazan, playing the film’s one true innocent, leads the most fully developed story, about a pair of siblings who join a caravan to Oregon.) Despite the slapstick humor and typically wry banter on display, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs sees the Coen brothers at their most misanthropic, depicting humanity as a kind of pestilence, nothing more than a bunch of malefactors and murderers who will, given the chance, fuck you over. Death pervades these stories, seeping into each narrative like blood into a garment.
The Coens work within the formula and architecture of the western, not challenging or revitalizing or revisioning as much as simply reveling. This anthology’s six vignettes vacillate between tones and types, from screwball to the funereal (the final moments, which will likely spur much conversation, hark back to Edgar Allan Poe as much as they do to any classic western). There are parodic jaunts through familiar territory and more earnest, traditional tales. The first and most playful section, from which the film’s title is culled, stars Coen regular Tim Blake Nelson as a crooning guitar slinger and preternaturally gifted shootist who talks and blasts his way through the American frontier. He has a bevy of nicknames, but his wanted poster is adorned with the moniker “The Misanthrope,” to his chagrin. Garrulous and trenchant, he’s as fast with his quips as he is with his pistols, and embarks on long, deadpan soliloquies, addressing the audience directly with a wink, musing about this and that as he blows the fingers off of someone’s hand.
In the opening moments, a shot from the point of view of the inside of a guitar lets us know that this is an exuberant, mischievously silly story, though it is, like all of the others, rife with corpses and mottled with computer-generated blood. It’s a fun, often uproarious 20 minutes, with some of the most unrepentantly lugubrious sight gags of the Coens’ career, but Buster lacks any sort of mystique. He’s a husk in a white hat. There is, here and in most of the other stories, a lack of deeper insinuation, a lack of curiosity. In their best films, the Coens mine the depths of loneliness and egotism and frailty and solipsism. If there are ripples emanating from each action in No Country for Old Men, here every action leads, simply and invariably, only to bullet wounds and sardonic quips. It’s the kind of sophomoric misanthropy of which the filmmakers have long been accused by naysayers.
After the first story, the film grows more tepid. James Franco and Stephen Root appear in the second section, which opens with Sergio Leone-inspired augmented sound and painterly stasis before erupting into slapstick histrionics. It feels as if the Coens wrote a clever one-liner, then crafted a sketch around it. (It is, admittedly, a damn good line, delivered with moribund apathy by Franco, though you may feel disappointed at the feeling that the film is, only two stories in, already starting to drag, like a corpse tied to a horse.) Another story, about an armless, legless thespian (Harry Melling) and his reticent consort (Liam Neeson), feels like a rejected episode of Tales from the Crypt, though it’s elegantly shot and, in certain melancholic moments, recalls the sad, sublime weirdness of Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love.
Tom Waits, looking and sounding like Nick Nolte after a long night, appears as a gold prospector in the segment based on the Jack London story “All Gold Canyon.” He emerges from verdant trees, like an unwanted apparition, and, upon seeing a glistening stream snaking its way through flaxen fields, begins to dig holes in the bucolic, beauteous little swath of paradise, searching for gold. The moment brings to mind William Faulkner’s “The Bear,” which features a frenzied, more experimental section about man’s usurpation and destruction of land. The story’s insolence toward standard grammar and breakdown of syntax reflect the inner turmoil of a character who’s reached an unpleasant epiphany—the formal, accessible prose of the story giving way to unfettered emotional crisis. Seeing a gorgeous pastoral oasis piebald with holes in this film brings to mind a quote from the story: “...that doomed wilderness whose edges were being constantly and punily gnawed at by men with their plows and axes who feared it because it was wilderness…”
Waits’s prospector mutilates nature in pursuit of wealth, the way men maim and kill each other in that same pursuit. As the man grumbles to himself, digs holes, sifts through dirt, digs more holes, the audience is left to wait for the inevitable ironic twist and abrupt burst of violence. And that predictability saps the story of any profundity. Again, a few sharp one-liners seem to be anchoring a meandering story that, however beautifully filmed, fails to linger in the mind, dissipating quickly like all that gunsmoke.