So much discourse and tale-telling has entered our small house through the tiny window of our television—no bigger than the screen of a large laptop. It isn’t the ideal way to see cinematic work, but in recent months it has been the only way. Near the beginning of England’s first lockdown, we decided to watch the entire oeuvre of the Coen Brothers, in chronological order. It’s been a journey.
It began with Blood Simple, a film in which each character observes a partial and misleading facet of a narrative whole to which only the audience is privy—it’s rather like the story of the blind men and the elephant, in which the eponymous pachyderm is identified variously as a snake, a rope, a tree, a wall, a spear, and so on. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, at the temporary conclusion of this Odyssey, presents a narrative fragmented in a different way, a series of six bagatelles whose unifying themes are emergent and ambiguous, as is always the case with the Coens’ movies.
In common with several of their pictures, this one is a critical love letter to a particular genre. They had already visited the Western, in No Country For Old Men, and more obviously, True Grit; but the Western is a multifarious beast, and in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs the brothers were able to take a rather larger bite out of its aesthetics. Both the earlier flicks were cut from the same cloth, serious-minded works in which the landscape obliterates the trivialities and frivolities of social life in favour of a hard-handed and unforgiving version of the sublime. The later anthology attends to some of the dafter tropes of the genre.
The Western is really the defining mythology of the USA, and some of the more inexplicable aspects of that country can be better understood if you watch a few of them. In these six short stories the Coen Brothers exaggerate and distil aspects of that mythology, sometimes satirically, and sometimes less ironically, although always with a good dose of dark humour. It’s the eponymous episode which really encapsulates their project here.
Buster Scruggs is the apotheosis of the Western hero from the Golden Age: he is a friendly and amusing fellow, a singing cowboy—and a brutal, multiple murderer. The moral simplicity of a world in which the killing of the ‘bad guys’ can be carried off in volume without an iota of compunction or regret has rarely been more expertly traduced. Even while they offer a scathing critique of that world, the Coens still betray a deep affection for it, of course, and every detail of musical style, costume, body language and setting is rendered perfectly.
Each of these vignettes offers a window onto the world of the Western—a consensual fantasy which accommodates everything from the fluffy confectionary of Annie Get Your Gun to the grim, racist vengeance of The Searchers. It is a narrative domain on which the perspective offered by any one feature film is partial, and inevitably misleading, just like the various points-of-view in Blood Simple, and this anthology, fragmentary though it is, provides something approaching a broad perspective on the genre. Perhaps our diminutive TV was the right window through which to view it—particularly as, uniquely for a Coen Brothers work, this film was given no more than a cursory theatrical release before it streamed on Netflix.
Also fragmentary is my account of the Coens’ filmography. Looking back through my journal entries I notice that I completely failed to write anything about Hail Caesar, which is an excellent film. I could go back and correct this omission, but somehow it seems better that it should stand, as unanticipated happenstance of the same sort that comes crashing across the screen at the conclusion of No Country For Old Men.
That fragmentation and happenstance is present within these stories, as well as across the whole anthology. Each is a beautifully crafted miniature, which addresses an aspect of the Western’s mythology—not in a programatic manner, but in an emergent way, driven by the directors’ pursuit of particular cinematic aesthetics. Revisionist they certainly are, but not clumsily or obviously—this is not ‘the Old West as it really was’, or ‘everything was much nastier than it is in the movies, you know’. No, this is ‘we love Westerns’, wedded to ‘we make this kind of film’—the Coens are fans of the Golden Age, but they are twenty-first century film-makers. The fragmentary and the ambiguous have been their stock-in-trade, but they have always made films with total formal clarity and aesthetic coherence: in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs they complete their squaring of that circle. From Blood Simple, which was a story told in fragments, they have reached the point of simply telling fragments of stories.