Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is made up of six vignettes telling tales from the Old West. It opens in the iconic Monument Valley, and while we’re quickly signaled that some of what we expect from the western genre will be inverted, the Coens nevertheless meticulously recreate many of our memories of old Hollywood westerns, complete with saloons, showdowns and stagecoaches.
We’re told stories of singing cowboys, prospectors, and pioneers, all with the Coen touch of sometimes being very darkly humorous, sometimes being very much not. But while it’s easy to say some parts of the anthology are better than others, I think this is missing the point. These aren’t actually separate stories. They’re all different sides of the same story. Because this isn’t a movie about the Old West—it’s a movie about Death.
As the Coens have told us before, you can’t stop what’s coming. They’ve long been interested in grand ironies, the cosmic joke, and in what awaits every one of us — sometimes when we expect it, usually when we don’t. There are variations, of course, but ultimately we’re all acting out the same parts.
The Coens’ dedication to the idea of the western leads to gorgeous sweeping vistas and many recognizable figures and tropes, but the fact that they’ve so clearly decided to play within the lines of the archetypal Hollywood western also means they keep the negative stereotypes that come along with it. With essentially two exceptions, the only people who speak are white men, and Native Americans are treated solely as chaos agents. I think there are reasonable arguments to be made in favor of these decisions, but I wouldn’t blame anyone for being turned off by this in the 21st century.
Still, with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Coens have big ideas on their minds, and when you take a step back and look at the movie as a whole, boy, do they deliver.