According to the Coen brothers, the reports were wrong. Their Western The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was never meant to be a TV series. Still, the anthology film approach presents risks that come with the subgenre. Would it simply feel like a compilation of six short films with a thematic throughline? Or would it feel like a cohesive, singular piece of work?
For the first five chapters, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is, mostly, the former. The stories range from entirely delightful to disturbingly dark, from excessively violent to impressively suggestive. Death is what runs through each of them, mostly unexpected death, random death and heart-sinking death — all of it often colored by the search for or need of money. The Coens levy a number of Western genre tropes and then upheave them for the darker view that, especially in a country with exploitative capitalism in its roots, death can come to anyone and anytime. A master gunslinger. A masked bandit. A helpless actor. An innocent woman. The death of Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) is the film’s most devastating, as it’s a self-execution due to a misunderstanding. But that’s the way of the West, the way of America.
The structure of the chapters is quite clearly no happenstance. It’s a rather ingenious work of guidance. From absurdity in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” and “Near Algodones” to darkness in “Meal Ticket,” then a bit of hope in “All Gold Canyon,” nearly crushed, but continued on through most of “The Gal Who Got Rattled” before finally being brutally crushed, the Coens scour the Western landscape and lead viewers up to the film’s lowest point for a reason. The sixth chapter is what ties the bow on the entire film.
While there’s plenty of reflection and commentary on the genre through the first five parts, the final chapter, “The Mortal Remains,” turns to self-reflexivity to expand on that.
The sequence seems quite simple. Two bounty hunters and three travelers have a conversation in a carriage en route to Fort Morgan. But the talk quickly turns to a judgment of sorts on the types of people there are and the types of lives those people live. There’s the trapper, who says that people are the all same, comparing them to ferrets or beavers. There’s the religious woman, who talks about sin and betterment. And there’s the Frenchman, who talks about luck and how one can never truly know someone.
The carriage itself becomes a clear symbol of time and the unstoppable ride to death. And their debate turns to major themes of life: the soul, love, death and the afterlife — the very themes that the five chapters all ruminate on — in a sort of philosophical pondering of what came before.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the bounty hunters that sit across from them can stand in for the Coens themselves. “We’re a duo, a tandem, a team!”
With the bounty hunters, played by Jonjo O’Neill and Brendan Gleeson, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs delivers a sermon on storytelling in general. “People can’t get enough of [stories], like little children, because, well, they connect the stories to themselves, I suppose. And we all love hearing about ourselves so long as the people in the stories are us, but not us. Not us in the end, especially.”
These bounty hunters oversee death at the very end of people’s lives, delivering bodies to the afterlife, just as the Coens did with the many characters that pass away. And the dialogue reaffirms the film’s examination of death in service of challenging how viewers confront stories with death.
“I do like looking into their eyes as they try to make sense of it,” one of the bounty hunters says about watching people die. “And do they ever succeed?” the religious woman asks.
“How would I know? I’m only watching.”
In a way, the Coens complete the arc of the film, tying it together cohesively, by suggesting that the arc is random, sometimes cruel, and sometimes meaningless. It’s an incredibly cynical idea about life — until the Coens flash their charm in the final moment, as the Frenchman walks into the afterlife not scared or sad, but by tapping his hat and walking with his head held high. It might be something about the French, audiences or filmmakers, that the Coens appreciate. And with that, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs becomes one of the duo’s most profound works.
Kyle Kizu (@kylekizu) is a freelance film writer out of Los Angeles. His writing has also appeared in The Hollywood Reporter, IndieWire, Fandor, Crooked Marquee and Film Inquiry.