For years, American cinema has been hell-bent on pushing the idea of an ‘Old West’ that is ruthless and opportunistic. A world where you must grab every day by the horns, not knowing where the next danger lurks. Gunslingers are always around the corner and the surroundings, both vast and unfriendly, are worse still. Movies like The Quick and the Dead and High Noon would have you believe the west is a kill or be killed world. However, the Coen brothers’ latest Netflix Original, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, tells a far bleaker story.
It combines beautiful landscapes and damning twists of fate to offer us six anthology stories, each with its own theme, style, and tone. However, they all share the same brutal description of the west and begin with a slight nod to an old book, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, wherein these life stories lie. The movie isn’t composed of a single narrative, but a collection of miniature ones—the Coens take the artifice of that construction pretty literally. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs first appears to us as a leather-bound volume.
The titular character appears to us only once—in the opening. Tim Blake Nelson plays a chirpy outlaw Buster Scruggs, the most mild-mannered and pleasant bandit that ever existed, only for that impression to be quickly proven wrong, as he effortlessly guns down several men in a salon. Sadly, he dies soon after. If anything, this sets the central motif for the rest of the tales–the inevitability of death. In other words, each of these stories is in some way about death.
The rest of the tales are as follows, in no particular order. We see a cowboy (James Franco) survive first, a fateful encounter with the banker he tries to rob, second his own hanging sentence and third, a savage horde of Indians. Except, you guessed it, he’s not as lucky the second time around when he is caught. In “Meal Ticket,” an armless and legless orator, suffers the fate of all underperforming acts when his renditions of “Cain and Abel” and “Ozymandias” fail to please his maestro (Liam Neeson). In “All Gold Canyon,” a prospector, digging for gold comes up against the brutality of nature. “The Gal Who Got Rattled” follows Alice (Zoe Kazan), a woman traveling with a wagon train, in hopes of making a new life for herself in Oregon. In “The Mortal Remains,” by far with the most obscure ending, sees a divorcee, Frenchman, and vagabond travel in a stagecoach alongside two bounty hunters to a destination we know mysteriously little about.
It’s a pleasure watching these stories unfold to the backdrop of the Old West. But the Coens use it as an opportunity to explore the often wrongly praised chaotic order. In The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the West isn’t a source of American pride or a place we ought to willingly reminisce. Instead, it’s the place where centuries-old American myths go to die.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is available to stream on Netflix.