The Coen brothers began their career writing tight narratives that feverishly chugged along, pulling their characters into wild machinations with no hope of escape. Their stories displayed an unabashed nihilism, a sense that to even attempt to seek meaning in death or mayhem would seal someone’s fate, so it’s best not to question. The Big Lebowski, the writing-directing duo’s 1998 riff on The Big Sleep, seems on the surface the apotheosis of that attitude; the character of The Dude exemplifies a blow-with-the-wind lifestyle. But what has proven most notable about The Big Lebowski is its nonsensical narrative structure, which found Joel and Ethan Coen giving the finger to anyone too concerned about the “rules” of storytelling — now not only were their characters and story nihilistic, but their structures as well. Then came their bonkers 2009 black comedy, Burn After Reading, where the brothers went one step further. They ended the film with J.K. Simmons’ character conceding, in dialogue, reason’s defeat to chaos. transmitting the message: What you just saw doesn’t matter, but wasn’t it fun?
The Coens’ new Western anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was born from that penchant for disorder. In six vignette tales of mischief and wonder, hopelessness abounds while daft characters reign. But this time, as the Coens wended round through interminable turns, and people died or didn’t die, I found myself struggling to care, anxious for things to wrap up. Maybe all these dutifully meaningless stories would have been easier to swallow spaced out into standalone episodes like the directors had originally planned.
In typical Coen fashion, most people in the movie meet ironic or wry deaths, but this time the Coens seem to be actively eschewing any deeper emotional connection between the audience and the characters. They opt for a lighter brush even when the dramatic stakes are already right there in the picture, just waiting for a bold stroke to bring them out.
Take the tale of “All Gold Canyon,” which stars Tom Waits as an old prospector who meticulously searches for a gold pocket near a pristine stream. This section is quiet and sweet, just a man communing with nature, waking up each day to partake in his form of prayer: digging until he’s tired and then doing it all over again. I won’t give away this segment’s twist, but I will say that something happens to rupture the peace, and the prospector bellows at the camera, “You didn’t hit nothin’ important,” saliva rocketing from his lips, his hair and face a manic mess. That’s the most memorable few seconds of the film because it comes closest to real depth of emotion — Waits offers a bear of a performance in scenes where he’s only ever delivering his lines to nature, talking lovingly to an unseen pocket of gold. But the Coens quickly move on, with jaunty tunes that whistle us through the rest of the vignette, and then on to the next, the prospector never to be heard from again.
The best I can say about Buster Scruggs is that it seems as though the Coens picked their favorite actors and wrote them a part specifically tailored to their abilities. Like Tim Blake Nelson, a standout in the first vignette as the singing and gunslinging Buster Scruggs. He croons as he shoots, plays by the rules and always wears a clean white shirt, pressed, and also a smile — even as he murders a handful of men in a shack saloon. Buster Scruggs is delightful, and I didn’t want him to leave.
Perhaps the directors’ experience of making a joyous musical number with Channing Tatum in Hail, Caesar inspired them to do something similar with Nelson, a sequence as richly artificial as old Hollywood singing cowboy movies. Hell, it’s possible that the critical reception to Hail, Caesar — praising the sum of that film’s parts but not the whole — led them down the path to anthology work. What could be better than dreaming up some weirdos for the screen and then never having to figure out how their stories would intersect with anyone else’s?
One of my favorite of the weirdos is Stephen Root as a fast-talking, bespectacled banker who, it turns out, has devised a foolproof system for protecting himself and the cash in his isolated bank from the danger of robbers. He strips down, straps an armor of tin pans to his body, and then charges at a thief across an empty, windy plain. Every time the thief’s bullet hits one of the pans, the banker yelps “Pan shot!” and continues charging.
There’s something wildly unnerving about peril emerging from a peaceful, barren tableau — the scene more than a little echoes one in Fargo, where Gaear Grimsrud runs across a snowy lawn, ax raised in hand to slaughter Carl. The most effective element in Buster Scruggs is the Coens’ use of wide open spaces and the terror of solitude, of getting by where there’s no one and nothing to help if things go wrong. In the end, though, even with a buckshot smattering of memorable characters, not much of this story mattered. Some of it was fun! But, pardner, it seems that the more the Coens tell me not to care, the more I find myself wanting to. Before watching Buster Scruggs again, I’d probably seek out Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers, a Western not afraid to mean something.