Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is comprised of six short stories that deal with characters and settings you would find in the iconic ‘wild west’ of movies. Cowboys, migrants, outlaws, settlers, miners and Indians grapple for space in the uneasy frontier that separates civilisation from the wilderness. There is a duel in the street, a bank robbery, a haunted stagecoach ride, dust, mud, monument valley, and plenty of Coen-twisted western genre tropes.
All of the Coen brothers’ movies, from Blood Simple (1984) to Hail Caesar! (2016) are basically comedies that fall somewhere on two spectrums: the spectrum of blackness, and the spectrum of absurdity. This anthology will give the uninitiated a good primer on the full range of both. The deceptively polite, singin’ gunslinger of the movie’s title provides wicked shootout fun, while Zoe Kazan’s Miss Longabaugh is in a love story that takes a tragic turn. More stars appear in varied shades of likability: James Franco as an unlucky bank robber, Liam Neeson as a Machiavellian showman, Tom Waits as a crusty gold miner. Sometimes the situations are quietly reflective, sometimes giddily funny, sometimes poignantly grim.
The real frontier in this world, though, is the edge of existence itself. Pointless, inevitable death without glory is the theme that unites these stories. And while we may hesitate to finally brand the Coen brothers nihilists – they seem to enjoy the excruciating wonder of existence too much – their past ambivalence about spiritual matters here gives way to decisive and rather bleak atheism. This is less Fargo (1996) and more A Serious Man (2009).
The heart of the collection, and the strongest story, is the segment called Meal Ticket. Neeson as a bedraggled, terse entertainer tours the frontier in his wagon and presents a show for a sparse public that is sometimes awed, sometimes indifferent. His entertainment is an armless, legless actor who skilfully recites Shakespeare, Lincoln and the Bible at levels of primal passion that reach heartrending heights. (The true actor here is the incredible Harry Melling, best known as Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films.) Utterly dependent on his unfeeling handler, the exploited actor’s situation feels like a metaphor for the human condition wrought as Samuel Beckett might have done: this is the sad irony of theatre of the absurd.
So, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs feels a little like a side project for the Coens, but it reads like a succinct manifesto of their philosophies. We’re all just here for a brief moment, wretched players on a stage, strutting and fretting in the vain hope that in the end fate might treat us kindly.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is now streaming on Netflix.