The Coen Brothers’ last feature, Hail, Caesar!, was one of my very favorite films of 2016 and one of my all-time dearest favorites from the directors’ mighty catalog. It’s a testament to how little interest I have in the Western as a genre, then, that it took me so long to catch up with the Coens’ follow-up to that philosophical Old Hollywood farce. Readily available on Netflix for months, nominated for several Academy Awards, and elbowing its way to the top of many critics’ Best Films of 2018 lists (including James’s), The Ballad of Buster Scruggs should have registered as must-see-ASAP material in the scramble to catch up with the best films 2018 had to offer. Early in its runtime, I even felt foolish for having let it cool on the shelf for so long, as its opening ten minutes are an energizing, over-the-top subversion of a genre that normally bores me to tears. My appreciation quickly plummeted from there, however, as it more often participated in the standard tones & tropes of the classic Western without subversion or update – sometimes to disturbing political implication, often to by-the-numbers tedium. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs doesn’t transcend genre so much as it gleefully rolls around in it.
This is an anthology of Western tales with an elegantly simple wraparound: an illustrated hardcover collection of short stories set in the Old West titled “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (And Other Tales of the American Frontier.” As a disembodied hand flips the pages of the book it becomes clear why the titular story was highlighted as a standout and the other tales were grouped together beneath it. Coens veteran Tim Blake Nelson stars as the eponymous Buster Scruggs, parodying the exact smiling, singing cowboy archetype from Old Hollywood Westerns that Alden Ehrenreich played in Hail, Caesar!. Against the intensely artificial desert backdrops & drunken saloon shootout settings of classic cowboy musicals, Buster Scruggs exists as a kind of Bugs Bunny anarchist – mugging directly to the audience while enacting a brutal trail of slapstick violence. The segment’s Looney Tunes-level exaggeration of the typical Western’s brutality and anarchic mockery of its usual somber adherence to a strict moral code were a welcome subversion of a genre that could use some shaking up. It’s a shame, then, that the rest of the film felt so grim & macho (and weirdly racist) in the exact ways I’m usually bored with in this genre template.
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a wonderful novelty in isolation; it’s the “Other Tales of the American Frontier” that drag this anthology down into regressive tedium as a collection. The Coens’ usual fixation on the philosophy & brutality of Death are perfectly at home with the genre – to the point where they get perilously uncomfortable with its worst trappings. Tall tales of brutish men fearlessly carving out a space for themselves in harsh, untamed terrain, nary a woman in sight; tone-deaf vignettes of white celebrities playing cowboy by slaughtering the indigenous nations of the land without subversion or critique; the indignity of having to continue looking at James Franco: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is so often an unpleasant, outdated bore that by its final segments it’s difficult to remember all the way back (over two hours earlier) to the live-action cartoon subversion that opened the show. There’s something to be admired in how the Coens use the avatar of Buster Scruggs, billing him as The Misanthrope, to exaggerate the way their cruel, ironic pessimism is often interpreted by critics despite their ostensible role as singing, dancing entertainers, before then leaning into the exact prolonged misanthropy they’re too often dinged for. The problem is the contrast between those two modes – the self-parody and the business-as-usual – is unfavorable to the majority of the runtime.
As someone who’s bored by Westerns almost by default and doesn’t have the same scholarly, intensive interest in the Coens as a lot of serious Film Nerds do, I’m probably the exact wrong voice to weigh in on this film’s merits. After several unsuccessful attempts to watch their much-beloved No Country for Old Men in its entirely without falling asleep, for instance, my opinion here is likely not to be trusted. Either way, I do believe “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is worth a look. I just don’t think the “Other Tales of the American Frontier” have much to offer beyond what you’d expect from the “Coen Brothers Western” premise of the anthology.