Harsh Texture

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

For the Coen Brothers' first film for a digital distribution service they deliver a minor pleasure. Anthology films are rarely the stuff of greatness, a limitation of the format. The Coens use six Western stories to frame stark depictions of intergenerational conflict. Neither the young nor the old are any holier than the other.

Netflix may be the most dominant media producer in 2018. It’s mastering a rare combination of quantity and quality by sparing no expense. It’s invested vast sums of money to churn out new content and a frantic clip.

Money can’t buy respect though. Established film circles have so far resisted all of Netflix’s entreaties. Even finishing Orson Welles’ “The Other Side of the Wind” after four decades couldn’t get Netflix a screening at Cannes festival. Eventually the establishment will come around. Netflix is a steam train in motion, and while the critical circles may continue to resist the filmmakers themselves are hopping onto the bandwagon.

The Coen Brothers are a huge “get” for the digital platform. The worst anyone can say about their filmography to this point is that the comedies aren’t quite as good as the dramas.

Given the famed “blank check” and total artistic control by Netflix, the Coens decided to turn in their first anthology film. This is a curious choice. Anthology films rarely make for great entertainment. Even the high end, Pulp Fiction, is really a conventional linear narrative chopped up and rearranged into an anthology format. The reason for this is clear enough. Different narratives with different actors, different styles, different effects on the audience. Its difficult to maintain momentum and the thread linking all the stories can be nigh nonexistent.

So it is with Buster Scruggs. The crew behind the camera is static at least, as the cast changes from segment to segment. The Coens provide a consistent but supple tone. The opening act where the titular Buster Scruggs can break the fourth wall and address the audience doesn’t feel out of place with the more naturalistic segments at the film’s core.

Still its a bit odd that given the unlimited resources at their disposal, the Coens decided to aim low. It may very well be that such a film would be exceptionally difficult to get produced for a theatrical release. Audiences don’t flock to anthology films and this would at best be a December spike in time for awards season. It also may be that the Coens have internalized the critical regard for digital distribution and produced a minor film for a lesser platform.

There is no direct connective tissue between the segments, outside of the sterling digital cinematography. No character appears, or is even mentioned out of their stories. This goes for the actors too.

The stories in Scruggs aren’t random however. Each revolves around the changing of the guard, the battle between the established and the brash up-and-comers eager to earn their place. Sometimes younger, newer challenger will win, and sometimes the old dog lives to another day. In all cases the conflict is rendered in the starkist of terms. The only story that doesn’t end in death may very well take place in the afterlife.  

Sometimes this conflict is apparent, but others its not trumpeted. The most enigmatic segment, “The Girl Who Got Rattled”, ultimately provides an elderly wagon guide the opportunity to prove his utility and indeed virility by fending off a raiding party by himself. Yet his great fight will ultimately doom the very people he wanted to impress.

All the stories operate under an air of pessimism so stark that it could be suffocating if not for the energetic performances and sheer technical precision the Coens imbue in the feature. Like the titular Scruggs--hyper violent, a born entertainer, with a diseased morality--the Coens here could be labeled misanthropic. Whatever their thoughts on the old vs the young, both illustrate a low opinion of humanity in general.

The closest the film gets to a producing a good human is the old man (Tom Waits!) in All Gold Canyon. He respects the bounty of a picturesque, unspoiled valley. Filmed as an Eden, with all the necessities of life in abundance, the old man turns prospector. Finding the evidence of gold he scars the land looking for “Mr. Pocket”: the motherload. Ultimately he only takes what he needs yet one doesn’t need to imagine what fate would befall the valley should anyone else find it.

Many of the segments feel like allusions to the entertainment business. At least one “Meal Ticket”, the black heart of this feature, makes this comparison explicit. Each segment though features song (and sometimes dance) prominently. So much emphasis given that even those naturalistic sequences feel performative.The score here is so good that it recalls O Brother Where Are Thou, whose soundtrack was a prominent highlight of the roots music revival at the turn of the century. Furthering the comparison one of the Soggy Bottom Boys, Tim Blake Nelson, is cast as Buster Scruggs and who’s sequence at times slips into full-on musical.

For the Coens, coming off the slightly disappointing Hail Caesar a couple years ago, six stories about stark struggles between the old and the new makes for an interesting interpretation. Do they see the day coming where their stature in the industry will be challenged? Are they chafing against the new distribution model? Every new era, every new technology, creates its own brand of geniuses who appreciate the nuances at their disposal in a fundamentally different way than their predecessors. Yet at the same time the moral of these stories comprising Buster Scruggs is that the changing of the guard ultimately reveals nothing new. Whatever follows will be just as good or just as bad as what came before.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a decidedly traditional Western, despite its 2018 release date and Netflix imprimatur. The characters and their motivations wouldn’t be unfamiliar to Westerns in the fifties, though the pessimism on display here would fit in better in the late sixties among the anti-Western movement. Nearly all the characters are white and all save LIam Neeson’s Impresario, and Brendan Gleeson’s Irishman seem to be born in the United States. All speak in that Hollywood-Western accent, peppered with politeness and clear annunciations. I doubt anyone ever spoke like this outside of classic Hollywood pictures and its a layer of artificiality that feels like a blind spot more than a artistic choice.

Native Americans haunt some of the segments. Like classic Hollywood Westerns they are largely “Injuns”, forces of nature who exist solely to torment the white protagonists. There’s nothing here out of place from period Westerns, but it feels like an anachronism to see such depictions in modern film.

Published: Dec. 3, 2018, 1:38 a.m.
Updated: Dec. 3, 2018, 1:50 a.m.