From the glorified heroes of classic Westerns to the brutal worlds of recent neo-Westerns, the Western genre has been repeatedly redefined by filmmakers in the last century. Known for their dark humor and unconventional storytelling, contemporary Western directors Joel and Ethan Coen — “the Coen Brothers” —came back after two years with “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” a film that touches on the ruthless nature of the world we live in with a bit of dancing, a bit of singing and six unpredictable and separate stories.
Although I have always been a fan of Westerns, I was not aware of the genre’s incredible potential. These stories are set on the western frontier of America during the post-Civil War era. The characters are consistent with established Western tropes — the gunslinger, the cowboy, the robber and the gold miner. However, besides the time period, there isn’t much that connects these characters to one another. One story can be entirely driven by the conversation between three people on a carriage, and the next one will portray two people traveling through the winter without ever talking to each other. In 133 minutes, the audience is exposed to a variety of situations instead of one story, making it an absolutely unique viewing experience.
As different as each of the stories are, the movie has an internally connected theme. In the film’s world, individuals are not rewarded for living dignified, righteous lives. Characters can narrowly escape death by chance, and then be killed for absurd reasons. Love doesn’t last, and art is not appreciated. The ones who live happily in this cruel world are those who accept the fact that life is short. Without heroes or villains, the directors present a Wild West where fate is detached from morality.
Compared to the incredible screenplay, the other aspects of the film don’t stand out as much. Coming from two of the most gifted directors living today, both the visuals and script of the film are top-notch. However, compared to the directing duo’s past works, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” seems nearly derivative. Many of the tropes and twists that are supposed to subvert the expectation of the audience can be found in the directors’ earlier works.
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a rather experimental film, considering its choice to flesh out a dozen of main characters in a number of non-related pieces, which has rarely been done in the past. However, it manages to create a collection of beautiful stories with hilarious performances. If you have not seen any of the Coen brothers’ films, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a great one to start with.