The new Coen Brothers movie, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, was released on Netflix November 16, after a (very) limited theatrical release. The National Board of Review made it a top-10 pick for 2018, and it won an early award (for best screenplay) in Venice.
The Coens are auteurs, so they make Coen movies, which Coen fans eagerly anticipate and then love, or love to hate, in cultish ways. Even their two most mainstream movies—No Country for Old Men and True Grit, both from already-famous prose and film texts—bear their unmistakable imprint, which includes dark and surreal comedy, genre-pricking, mannered but smart dialogue, and violence that is not so much karma as awakening stick. Their films are uncompromisingly Coen, and Ballad is the latest.
Ballad comprises six short films that have little to do with each other, other than they all seem to take place in the latter half of the 1800s in the west, are lifted from the pages of an invented western-tales anthology we see between segments, and are westerns as shaped by the Coens. They all also end in death for main characters, if you take the view that the one who believes he has survived being shot through (“It didn’t hit nothin’ important!” he cries hysterically) will likely die anyway, and that the allegory-like final segment is about limbo.
To miss their point entirely, the six segments can be summarized as follows: 1) Quick-draw artist is finally bested; 2) Bank robber is hung—twice; 3) Performing troupe loses its only artist to murder; 4) Old prospector overcomes adversity—twice—and gets rich; 5) Romance between a wagon-train leader and a woman in his charge is thwarted by a fatal mistake; and 6) Five characters in a stagecoach argue the nature of human life as they hurtle toward their final destination.
Like any fan, I choose my favorites and wonder about the lesser ones. (I remember now, with some embarrassment, sitting in the theater for O Brother, Where Art Thou? and hating the gaping and mugging of George Clooney as Ulysses Everett McGill, though I had loved much of the same overacting in Barton Fink.) The first segment of Ballad seems weak and unnecessarily slow, and I always hated singing cowboys, and if the one in the first segment is a vicious killer, why is he seen winging to heaven strumming a lyre? I feel righteous when I learn the segment was written decades ago, when the Coens were not the masters, perhaps, that I believe they are now.
But the masters made the choice to include that old segment, and no one, the Coens least of all, cares how I feel about my fate of having to sit there with my laptop, waiting for the movie to get going. That happening-to, I dare say, is a thing artfully enacted throughout the movie, as is the uncertainty about whether that is its point. Critics have said the Coens are essentially philosophical filmmakers and point to Wittgenstein, but I think of Camus, who suggests Sisyphus eventually transcends his torture by coming to love his labors as process, and never mind the perverse boulder. That is, he becomes an artist. What else can you do, in a world not of your own making, but hope to gain some perspective?
In the Coens’ work, everything is a potential boulder, but there is no way of knowing if it will run everybody down or be an opportunity for their (and our) liberation. In Ballad, even the prose in the glimpsed western anthology has a strange texture:
Aspen and pine lined the wagon’s route, indifferent spectators to the passing of Man. Or was it men? Lone driver sat the wagon’s buckboard, but was there passenger within? Impossible to say. Rattles emanated from the coach—the clatter of household implements and perhaps the impedimenta of trade. If passenger there were he was content to ride in silence, peering perhaps out the back window, which was open.
This sounds like some mashup of stage direction, bungled translation, and the syntax and diction of Charles Portis’ novel True Grit. Why?
There have always been questions about what the Coens show us. Why, for instance, do so many men scream in their films? Is kindness an antidote to harshness in their universe? Why is Ballad six segments, not five or seven? Is its content and ordering the Coens’ version of a vanity fair? A memento mori?
Their work makes us both participants and voyeurs in this questioning, and like the characters we often lack the perspective to know why the world is why it is. We do our best with what we are given, but beyond that are often like Clooney when the cyclops whacks him in the midst of a pleasant picnic: “I don’t get it, Big Dan.”
In Ballad we watch characters face death in a cruel, surreal, arbitrary world. It does not matter how we feel about what we see (the uncompromising part, since it refuses to follow the blockbuster-melodrama model), just as it does not seem to matter, in terms of agency, that the characters probably wish different fates. In this, something melds.
In the final segment, a stagecoach interior, a fop and his chum, who may be either bounty hunters or Death’s henchmen, smile at the other passengers, sing, converse, and tell stories. The (apparently) damned are puzzled by them.
One of the henchmen sings a song lovely on the surface but actually about death and rot, and the other weeps or pretends to weep, saying it gets him every time and that his chum sings it “on every trip.” When asked what their business is, he says they help people who have been “ajudged to be ripe.” He likes to think of them as “reapers,” he says, and his chum adds, “Harvesters of souls.”
“They’re so easily taken when they’re distracted, people are,” the fop says, “so I’m the distractor, with a little story, little conversation, a song, a sparkle.” His chum is the “thumper,” he says. The passengers swallow and stare. The fop brings up a ghost story and begins to act it out, then stops and laughs.
“You know the story,” he says. “But people can’t get enough of them, 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.” For example, he says, people believe death will come for others but not themselves.
“I must say,” the fop says, settling in to his point, “it’s always interesting watching them after Clarence has worked his art. Watching them negotiate the passage … from here to there. To the other side. Watching them try to make sense of it as they pass to that other place. I do like looking into their eyes as they try to make sense of it. I do. I do.”
“Try to make sense of what?” an elderly trapper says.
“All of it.”
“And do they ever succeed?” asks a Victorian matron.
The henchman stares into the camera, watching us. Then the moment breaks, and he grins and looks away. “How would I know?” he says. “I’m only watching.” (The classic diversion of the artist, who claims not to be shaping a world.)
The horses scream, and the coach stops as suddenly as if it has hit a big rock. The process of passage has deposited us somewhere important, but like the other passengers we may not have the perspective yet to accept it as the storytelling duo does.