It’s hard to imagine any other contemporary filmmaker(s) forging a path through such well-trodden terrain with this much verve and inventiveness – who else but the Coens could so confidently tip their hat to the past masters of the western genre while whistling their own inimitable tune? This isn’t their first rodeo, of course, but it should be noted that The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an entirely different proposition to No Country for Old Men or True Grit. By turns darkly comic and deeply moving, this is the brothers’ personal ode to the Old West and the particular mode of storytelling that arose from it.
Split into six chapters, the film is a slow-paced, sure-footed amble across the American Frontier, through Monument Valley, the Sacramento Valley, the Oregon Trail and beyond. Individually these distinct locations (gorgeously lensed by Inside Llewyn Davis cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel) provide the backdrop to some of the most striking images – a quadriplegic thespian catching snowflakes on his tongue, a pair of gnarled hands sifting for gold in a winding stream – these writer/director siblings have ever conjured. Collectively they form a vivid geographical and cultural tapestry of a still untamed wilderness occupied by outlaws, bounty hunters, cattle wranglers, fur trappers, saloon keepers, whores, hicks and snake oil salesmen.
It begins unassumingly enough with a soothing melody from one-time Soggy Bottom Boy Tim Blake Nelson. The titular Buster Scruggs, aka the San Saba Songbird, aka the West Texas Tit (or Twit, depending on who you ask), is introduced as our mild-mannered guide to this vast, violent land of opportunity. Yet his pleasing baritone and crisp white Stetson belie his true nature. You see, this singing cowboy is not of the family-friendly Gene Autry variety – he’s a smiling assassin with a smart mouth and quick draw. This being an episodic film, he doesn’t stick around for long.
Appearances are deceiving in every one of these neatly-spun yarns. James Franco’s inept bank robber, Tom Waits’ grizzled prospector, Zoe Kazan’s Episcopalian maiden and the other main characters are made to seem the fool of their own stories before eventually being given a shot at redemption, which doesn’t always work out in their favour. If there’s a common idea or theme linking the film’s ostensibly disparate parts – while simultaneously connecting it to the brothers’ wider filmography – it’s that moral virtues don’t count for much in Coen country.
At 132 minutes, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is the longest offering to date from these two great American filmmakers. It’s testament to their craftsmanship and sense of economy that they manage to squeeze so much into that runtime, so many motifs and references to their western and comedy heroes, from John Ford and Sergio Leone to Buster Keaton and Tex Avery.
What the Coens have captured here is not just a series of colourful snapshots of their country’s past, but a perfect evocation of its people’s dreams and identity, of the shared mindset that was instilled during those challenging yet ultimately prosperous post-Civil War years. This is a film about America – with all its charms and contradictions, filled with scenes of bloody vengeance, religious zealotry, romantic idealism, slick salesmanship, incoherent ramblings and sunny optimism. It’s absolutely glorious.