*** ½ (out of 4)
In one way or another, most Westerns made in the last decade have sought to subvert the clichés and tropes that we typically associate with the genre. For instance, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) and The Hateful Eight (2015) both foregrounded the oft-forgotten role that racism played in frontier life. Through their gruesome tales of survival, meanwhile, films like Meek’s Cutoff (Reichardt, 2010) and The Revenant (Iñárritu, 2015) countered the “Wow, I wish I lived in the West” feeling that you get when viewing the beautiful landscape shots in John Ford’s films. And earlier this fall, The Sisters Brothers (Audiard) dismantled the archetype of the “invincible gunman,” portraying sharpshooters who were anything but mighty heroes in the mold of Shane and Will Kane.
At first glance, the Coen brothers’ new anthology film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, would appear to buck this genre-subverting trend. Each of its six stories, after all, seems to embrace Western tropes to an almost absurd degree. To take just two examples: the first story’s protagonist (Tim Blake Nelson) is a spur-toting, never-missed-a-shot gunslinger who likes to ride his horse through Monument Valley (yes, the Monument Valley) while playing songs on his guitar. Meanwhile, in a setup that easily recalls Stagecoach (Ford, 1939), the last story features five different stock characters – among them, a socially inept trapper (Chelcie Ross), an uptight old lady (Tyne Daly), and an elegant Frenchman (Saul Rubinek) – who find themselves stuck on the same stagecoach ride.
Ultimately, however, what makes Ballad so interesting is that the Coens use these traditional character tropes to tear down an equally traditional thematic motif in the Western genre: individual agency. The narratives of most classic Westerns, after all, rested on the unspoken assumption that individuals could exert control over the destinies of themselves and others. The heroes of such films – Shane, Will Kane, the Ringo Kid, Harmonica, and so forth – had the power to eradicate evildoers, keep themselves alive in the direst of circumstances, and save loved ones from death. Because of this, they always carried an air of omnipotence, as though nothing could happen to them without their knowing about it first.
The theme that pervades Ballad, on the other hand, is humankind’s essential helplessness, especially when it comes to death. Here, two examples will suffice. In the first story, the aforementioned gunslinger-guitarist kills off a series of enemies with a variety of stylish, awe-inspiring maneuvers (shooting with his gun behind his back, shooting off his enemy’s fingers one by one from a great distance…). Right after this remarkable display of prowess, however, he’s then unceremoniously shot in the forehead by a stranger who suddenly rides into town. Meanwhile, in the fifth story, the Coens initially introduce us to a character who’s planning an ambitious business venture in Oregon. After giving us the impression that he’ll be the story’s protagonist, however, the Coens then immediately kill him off by having him abruptly die of an unnamed illness.
Given these examples, you could hardly say that Ballad’s characters are in control of their destiny. If anything, the opposite proves true: no matter how cool, badass, or important they initially seem, events happen to them rather than because of them. Even though these characters are apparently all stock figures, their lack of agency thus starkly contrasts with the self-determination that their genre forebears typically exhibited. (After all, it’s not like Will Kane suddenly died of pneumonia halfway through High Noon.) Far from being superficial rehashes of Western tropes, then, the characters in Ballad turn out to be unexpected exercises in subversion, and they testify to the subtle, oblique genius of the Coens’ direction.
None of this is to say that Ballad is flawless. As with many of the Coens’ earlier films, most of Ballad’s stories strike a tone of ironic detachment, encouraging us to poke fun at the characters’ reactions and behavior. Yet in contrast to this general trend, a couple of the stories – specifically, the third and fifth – feature narratives that are unambiguously tragic. As viewers, this leaves us in a bind. Should we feel sorry for these people who endure so much suffering? If the answer is yes, that’s hard to do: given that we spend most of the film engaged in mockery of the characters, we can’t just suddenly “switch” to feeling empathy for them. If the answer is no, however, the Coens’ ironic detachment starts to look more like condescending callousness instead.
On balance, however, Ballad’s virtues more than make up for its occasionally off-putting unevenness. Thematically speaking, for one, it’s much more coherent than the Coens’ last Western, the alternately romantic and “realistic” True Grit (2010). If you enjoy the Coens’ peculiar, distinctive brand of comedy, moreover, there’s plenty of material here to keep you entertained. And all of the stories feature excellent performances: particular stand-outs include Nelson as the aforementioned sharpshooting musician, Tom Waits as a dogged prospector, and Zoe Kazan as an utterly helpless traveler on the Oregon Trail. On the whole, then, this film constitutes one of the Coens’ more memorable endeavors – and personally, I’d go so far as to say that it’s the best thing they’ve done since No Country for Old Men (2007).
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
Starring: Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Tyne Daly
Running Time: 132 minutes
MPAA Rating: R, “for some strong violence.”
Produced by: Joel and Ethan Coen, Megan Ellison, Sue Naegle, Robert Graf
Written and Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen