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NYFF Review: ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ busts the myths of the American West

Written by: Lauren Humphries-Brooks, CC2K Staff Writer

The Coen Brothers’ latest is The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, an anthology film that tells six stories from different subgenres of the literary and cinematic Western. Tim Blake Nelson is a singing cowboy and gunslinger, James Franco a bank robber, Tom Waits an old gold prospector, Liam Neeson a traveling showman, Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck settlers in a wagon train to Oregon. The stories aren’t incorporated within each other in any strict sense—characters don’t repeat or make special appearances in other stories, each section of the film is closed off with a solution, positive or negative, rendering them into short stories. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is rather variations on a theme, as each vignette examines the mythical nature of the West, and the permutations of the Western as the quintessential American genre.

The film opens with a book, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Other Tales of the American West, setting up the vignettes as short stories interconnected by theme. What’s contained within is exclusively cinematic—the first vignette “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” begins with Tim Blake Nelson riding through a Hollywood Western set, strumming a guitar and singing, a la Gene Autry. He speaks to the camera, explaining himself and his position as a singer and outlaw gunslinger with a grinning, self-aware swagger. This opening establishes the nature of all the narratives, which take the form of subgenres—the stagecoach, the gold prospector, the traveling showmen—that are then subverted and even satirized. As each subsequent vignette introduces the audience to a variety of characters and situations, all of them recognizable elements of the Western mythos, it builds into an existential examination of the Western as the foundation of American mythology, and all the brutality, the futility, the beauty, and the pathos within the American character and landscape.

The narratives shift between humor and horror, with a true Coen-esque melding that situates Buster Scruggs somewhere between Fargo and Hail, Caesar! in tone and subject matter. There is also an inherent subversion of expectations, as the film sets up certain dynamics surrounding death and violence that are then undercut in other vignettes. The shifts keep the audience unmoored and guessing, knowing that the story can shift suddenly from comedy to tragedy and back again. It also catalyzes that same sense of existential dread, of not knowing quite what the future has in store, over against a beautiful and unforgiving landscape that doesn’t care, one way or another, about the future of humanity.

The use of landscape here repeats the Coens’ concerns in films like Fargo and No Country for Old Men, in which nature becomes a mirror of and complement to human experience. Rather than utilizing Hollywood sound stages or the familiar locale of Monument Valley, the film shifts between the Hollywood set (“Buster Scruggs”), barren deserts and plains (“Near Algodones,” “The Gal Who Got Rattled”), wintry mountains (“Meal Ticket”), verdant valleys and mountains (“All Gold Canyon”), and vaguely supernatural wastelands (“The Mortal Remains”). The use of location shooting in Nevada and New Mexico for many of the vignettes results in some breathtaking landscapes through which the characters move, beset by physical and metaphysical threats that interact with and inform their locations. It’s the reality and surreality of the Western, an interaction between the real and the unreal, that makes the landscape as much an inverted character trope as the human characters themselves.

But there are times when the film does not take its subversion of tropes far enough, resulting in a reiteration of stereotypes that should have buried long ago. Women barely exist in this world. They figure as major characters into two vignettes—“The Gal Who Got Rattled” and “The Mortal Remains”—but remain secondary players in stories shaped by and about white men. This isn’t to denigrate the performances of either Zoe Kazan, who gives an excellent and nuanced study of an indecisive young woman trying to work her way through the world, or Tyne Daly, who dominates with her speeches in the final vignette. But it is somewhat disheartening to see female characters sidelined in favor of male narratives. This might be a trope of the genre, but it would have been nice to see at least one vignette in which it was undercut to the same degree that other tropes are.

More disturbing is the treatment of race. Black people do not exist at all in this version of the American West—no vignette deals with issues of pre or post-Civil War, nor with the existence of black people or any other non-white citizens. Which might be a blessing, given the way that the script deals with the only non-white racial group in the entire film. For The Ballad of Buster Scruggs does have a few American Indian characters, though to call them “characters” is giving the film far too much credit. This is the “American Indian”—unmarked by any real tribal or historical affiliation—as threat, the “savage” who besets good and decent white people. In “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” which involves the movement of a wagon train to Oregon, the arrival of a war party precipitates the vignette’s denouement. There is no doubt that there was hostility between wagon trains and regional tribes, that there were battles, kidnappings, rapes, and murders. But that is all we see—the American Indian as violent threat, hardly characterized, hardly respected, or even understood. Even The Searchers has more nuance than this. On the one hand, this is very likely how white settlers and immigrants saw and experienced these conflicts, and it is certainly the way that Westerns from Stagecoach on down have represented indigenous peoples. But the Coens are subverting expectations in most other senses—they are dealing with myth-making undercut by reality, playing with genre and stereotype. To see genre so adhered to along racial lines, with no subsequent undercutting, either within the vignette or within another vignette, is disheartening. It is an oversight, and a disturbing one at that.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs still manages to do so much with its stories, to tell such remarkably incorporated tales that are at once funny and horrifying, that its oversights do not wholly damn it, though they do raise disturbing questions about the continued utilization of the Western. There is undoubted power and entertainment in these stories, a harkening back to the quintessential American genre that manages to also play with and undercut its own myth-making power.

Rating: 4 Stars out of 5