I’ve tried to be very vague here but there are a couple mild and minor spoilers that I suspect most will already have predicted when they watch the movie.
If you’d like to watch the most beautiful movie you’ve ever seen about death, have I got a story for you. Well, six of them, actually.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a movie anthology that tells stories about the West that are really stories about death. Death, the subtext, haunts this movie as sure as Death, the reality, haunts us all. Westerns + death would likely be movie enough, but amazingly, somehow, the Coens have embedded subtexts within the subtext. Buster Scruggs is a movie that’s really about death but it’s really REALLY about a lot of other things. After all, there are many types of death, and most of them aren’t of the physical variety. The Coens use death as a stand-in for failure and disappointment and cruelty and justice. And perhaps most important, death is revealed to be the great unifier, one of the few things that all humanity has in common.
In The Ballad of Buster Scruggs you’ll hear a story about being replaced by a younger, better version of yourself, a story about how you can’t cheat fate yet you still try to live right up till the moment you die, a story of how entertainers are dropped when the next big thing comes along (literally), a story about work, possession, and the meaning of theft that’s better than other critics seem to think it is, a story about women’s precarious place in the world, and a take on the Death’s Stagecoach legend that ties it all together while making us consider why it is exactly we watch movies like this. And I’m not doing any of these stories justice because they’re all so rich and well-drawn that every one of them is about much much more.
The best story for me was the penultimate “The Gal Who Got Rattled”, the rare honest representation of how men chronically, constantly, and unremittingly put women into terrible situations that women then have to either learn to endure forever or eventually get themselves (and usually several children) out of. Or else die trying. And how, when women do die trying, men then stand around and kick the dust and wonder why it is women are so gol durn stupid. It’s a retelling of the cosmic joke that is male-female relations. People have been complaining that there’s a lack of female representation in Buster Scruggs, and to those people I would say shut up, because “The Gal Who Got Rattled” is one of the most scathing critiques of male hubris that has ever found its way to the silver screen. Yet out of the other sides of their mouths, the Coens simultaneously celebrate what is wonderful about good men – their courage, their generosity, their heroism. Although it would have been very easy to turn this tale into a “men bad, women good” morality play, the Coens resist the temptation. As such “The Gal Who Got Rattled” is absolutely magnificent and in and of itself is reason enough to watch The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
If you’re looking for a multicultural and diverse cast, Buster Scruggs is not your movie. Whiteness is definitely treated as the default setting here – exclusively white people meant to represent all people in a movie about the universality of the experience of human death. There is something off-putting about that. Personally I don’t expect diversity from the Coens – I believe they write what they know and what they know is whiteness and under normal circumstances that is ok by me. I don’t fault them for that. But in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, I did find the lack of diversity in the cast detracted from what is meant to be a universal message about the one human experience we’re all surely going to have.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is otherwise a fantastic movie with excellent writing, fantastic cinematography, spot-on casting featuring some Coen regulars (Tim Blake Nelson), some well-known character actors (Clancy Brown, Saul Rubinek, Chelcie Ross among many others), some big names (Liam Neeson, James Franco), some underutilized national treasures (Tyne Daly, Stephen Root, Zoe Kazan) some relative unknowns who steal every scene they’re in (Bill Heck, Jonjo O’Neill), and Tom Waits, which is never a bad thing.
Watch this movie, you measly skunks!