In the Coen brothers’ last movie, Hail, Caesar!, George Clooney played a kidnapped movie star who wound up in the thrall of blacklisted Communist screenwriters. “They’ve figured out the laws that dictate everything,” he gushes bumblingly at the end, once he’s retuned to the studio. “It’s all in a book called ‘Kapital’, with a ‘K’.” He’s summarily slapped upside the head and pushed back in front of the cameras.
His excitement about answers is a telling moment, and not because the Coens’ work is particularly Marxist or anti-Marxist. Nailing down the philosophy of their movies is a good deal more complex, more frustrating, and more fun. Their films are loaded with symbols and “isms”, enigmas and portents, references to politics and myth and the Bible, but all handled with the puckishness of natural born storytellers (and, on occasion, inveterate class clowns) who’d sooner shrug it off than cop to an academic reading. But what they have been, time and again, are our most affable chaoticians: from Blood Simple to Fargo to Burn After Reading to A Serious Man, their films return to a fiendish vendetta against anyone, on their side of the screen or ours, who presumes they’ve “figured out” what’s going on—or what’s going to happen next.
In The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, their new film for Netflix, the spinning of such tales is itself a central theme. Even by Coen standards, Buster Scruggs is an odd bird: an anthology of six vignettes set in Old West, dotted with balladeer heroes and framed as short stories found in a musty cloth-bound book. At first, the cartoonishness of the film is so out of sync with its own literary framing device that I wondered if the Coens really had turned into the cheap, heartless ironists their detractors always claimed. The opening two chapters don’t have narratives so much as characters who are established and then promptly dispatched: first a sociopathic singing cowboy (Tim Blake Nelson), and then a lone bandit (James Franco) who might have borrowed his coat from Sergio Leone. To the extent that these first thirty minutes, in a vacuum, mean anything at all, it’s mainly to take old movie archetypes and drop them into a vision of the West where death is not only brutal, but sudden and arbitrary. Such ultraviolent genre revisionism has been done before, better and deeper. And as for the Coens’ vision of the West, it starts out so thin that I had to wonder if thinness was the point. (If they actually went to Monument Valley, they opted to make it look like a digital matte painting).
That curiosity should be nurtured, because the film expands and gets richer as it goes along. Its subject is death, or the eternal threat of it, as viewed through American mythology. And by the end, this idea has picked up nuance, added thematic complexities, transitioned from looney-tune comedy to pathos, hinted at self-reflexivity, and opened itself to the possibility that even if death is inevitable, fatalism needn’t be so absolute. I can’t, for the life of me, sympathize with the criticism that it feels like stitched-together TV episodes. This is a clear case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; the stories show real progression, shading one another and allowing meaning to flourish in the cracks between them. The passage with Tom Waits is perhaps the most soulful work in a filmography where genuine, intimate soulfulness is rather rare. Zoe Kazan’s chapter is the longest and most densely plotted, and thus saved for near the end, as if the initial thinness of the film has thickened enough to tell it. And the corker is the finale, a single scene of darkly comic dialogue that, depending on how you read it, is either a trip to the underworld or an ordinary stagecoach ride where waning light and a good narrator can play tricks on your imagination.
It wouldn’t do to read too much wisdom into Buster Scruggs—or too little. In fact, either one seems disrespectful to a morbid compendium whose climax is an on-screen storyteller flashing a grin and saying “How would I know?” But if this is how smart-asses (now in their 60s) approach the concept of mortality, it’s mature and haunting, one of the most eccentric and gnawing surprises of 2018. And as it reaches a resolution, it makes it clear that if you’re looking for a lesson from the film, or from the Coens, it’s that the thrill was always in the telling.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs went straight to Netflix after stopping off at the Venice Film Festival to win the award for Best Screenplay. In a rare touch of class, Netflix doesn’t shrink the player until all the credits have rolled.