Those wily Coen are at it again! From the fellas who brought you The Big Lebowski, Fargo, and A Serious Man comes The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a six-in-one special that follows wild characters through the Wild West as only the Coens can conceive it. Six short films connected thematically comprise this film, which better win some Oscars, because it’s fucking good. You might consider it the Coen brothers at their best. Because The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is about three things the Coen seems to love most: Songs, Stories, and Death. And, of course, how the three are closely related.
Those Coens sure enjoy their songs. I mean, what soundtrack is more iconic than O Brother Where Art Thou? All right, Rocky 4, but apart from that, what else? Nothing, that’s what! The Coens are enamored with the way that songs carry on stories and traditions, the way they are passed down through time. There’s the song of the railroad workers at the beginning of Brother. There’s the song that Danny has to learn for his Bar Mitzvah in A Serious Man. There’s the songs that Oscar Isaac sings in Inside Llewyn Davis. And now, there’s numerous songs throughout Scruggs, including the titular character playing and singing “Cool Water” while riding his horse “Dan” to start off the film. After all, the word “ballad” is in the title, and ballads are among the oldest types of stories that exist — songs passed down around the fire, spread through the oral tradition for all to remember through time.
Speaking of old stories, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is enamored with storytelling. The entire movie is framed as a storybook, and before each of the six stories, we see a hand turning the pages of a book and arriving at the new story before we fade into the Coenic rendition. With the exception of “All Gold Canyon”, which was based on a Jack London story and stars Tom Waits as a prospector, all these stories were written by the Coens.
Among the earliest stories are parables, which have deep moral lessons hidden within. This is contrasted with fables, which tell the moral outright at the end. Parables leave it up to the reader. There’s also mythology, which the Coens greatly appreciate given their Jewish, Old Testament-heavy upbringing. And finally, there’s the classic American story: the Tall Tale.
Who can forget the stories of John Henry battling the machine on the railroad, or Pecos Bill riding the tornadoes, or Paul Bunyan chopping down trees with one sweep of the axe? These are stories that arose from the American Frontier, and the Coens play with those tropes, especially with Scruggs himself, who is an over-the-top, infamous outlaw known for his pleasant demeanor and sharpshooting.
The Coens have long been fans of stories within stories. Heck, even The Big Lebowski is set up as a story being told to us, via Sam Elliot, the mustached “Stranger.” They seem fascinated with the mechanisms of storytelling and how the story itself transmutes meaning, as opposed to an explicitly-stated moral at the conclusion. (This is why many were POed at the end of No Country For Old Men — because they had to interpret it themselves, and that’s hard, man!) The stories of Scruggs suggest that the Coens are so enamored with the devices of storytelling, because storytelling is our key to immortality.
Many have pointed out the bleakness to this film, due to the fact that all of the stories involve some contemplation of — and confrontation with — death. The Big D. That inevitable conclusion to our existences that we do our best to avoid, both in thought and action. The Coens want us to contemplate it. They want their characters to contemplate it. They find humor in it — such as when Scruggs kills Clancy Brown in the old saloon over cards — as well as tragedy — such as the brutal ending of “The Gal Who Got Rattled.”
The final short, “The Mortal Remains”, suggests that our approach to our death in large part determines the quality of our lives. Are we desperately clinging to notions of who we believe we are, and were, like the terrified woman in the center of the carriage? Or are we able to fastidiously adhere to its inevitability, like the French guy who goes through the doors at the end? When that inevitable moment comes, how prepared will we be to accept it?
Regardless, the Coens appear to believe that stories are a gateway to transcendence. Though the lives that animate the stories are impermanent, the stories themselves get passed down through time, and those impermanent characters become immortalized in memory. The Kid may have killed Buster at the end, but one day, The Kid will meet his match as well. As the last line of the titular story states, “There is another kid out there now, somewhere, just learning to sing, and sling a gun, and hoping to earn a legend of his own. Perhaps some day he will meet The Kid, and that will be another story--different, yet the same.”
We are playing out the same stories, in different forms, and these stories carry eternal lessons that recur through epochs and generations, cultures and religious traditions. In a time when virtue and morality is threatened under the postmodern veneer of relativism, the Coens turn to stories to remind us that there are values worth living for, values that transcend and philosophical interpretation, and our adherence to those values in large part determines how prepared we will be to meet our inevitable mortality.
0-4:00: Bullshit Stream of Consciousness
4:00: “Ballad of Buster Scruggs” and the Vision of the West
9:00: Traditional Narrative and Story Structure
24:00: Coen Bros and Disney
26:00: Heidegger and Scruggs: Being-Toward-Death
29:00: The Mortal Remains: A Carriage Ride of Death
36:00: Sartre’s No Exit
38:30: A Coen Bros Trope
41:00: The Recurrence of Stories Through Time: Songs and Jewish Tradition
43:00: A Serious Man, the Book of Job, and how stories communicate meaning
49:00: The Origins of Storytelling: Ballads, Fables, Parables, and Mythology; Psychotic interpretations of The Old Testament; Religious Truth vs. Historical Truth
54:30: Tall Tales: Paul Bunyan, John Henry, Pecos Bill, Casey at the Bat, and Buster Scruggs
1:00:25: The Ending of “The Gal Who Got Rattled”
1:04:15: “Meal Ticket” and the Disney-fication of Stories (and A Few More Reasons Inception Sucks)
1:11:00: Final Thoughts