The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is not the movie I expected. Having given up on trailer-watching and synopsis-gazing, I try to live a spoiler-free life. The Coen Brothers have the uncanny ability to constantly reinvent genres while never reinventing themselves. With True Grit (2010) they tackled the Western genre head-on and delivered a John Wayne movie for the new millennium: stylish, comical, dramatic; it’s every bit as good as its predecessor. Buster Scruggs presents itself as another “Coen” update of the Western genre as told through vignettes or episodes. Six in all, the titular main character appears in the opening scene but we only follow his tale for a few minutes before we are whisked away to another time and space in the Coen’s 19th century universe.
At first, I found myself dwelling over each episode’s unrealized or incomplete nature; an obvious allegory can be found in each. After realizing I was watching an anthology film my disillusions soon melted away as I remembered what seasoned “captains” were helming this ship. I would compare my viewing most to that of listening to a Greatest Hits album by one my favorite musical acts with a few original songs thrown in to wet my appetite. The hits are there, the style is there, the same Coen nostalgia of grit and grime and tongues poking a hole in our cheeks is there. And then suddenly, Tom Waits appears and steals the show.
The installment is titled “All Gold Canyon” and features Waits as a grizzly prospector trying his hand in one last canyon for one last score, searching for the fabled gold that has forever eluded him. The sweeping landscape, expertly photographed, sets us downstream with the old man and suddenly we are partners in destiny, hopeful we can make our dreams come true. To say Waits has never been better is a fallacy as he has proven himself as somewhat of an indie legend long before the Coen’s came along (see Down By Law, 1986, dir. Jim Jarmusch, as a starting point). His “Prospector” is never dismayed, never desperate, as he sets his nose to the grindstone and tends to his passion without recourse. As in the other segments of Buster Scruggs we are left to our own devices to ponder the outcome or lack thereof. It was in the culmination of “All Gold Canyon” that I realized the film’s true intention.
In 2016, I was privileged enough to attend a lecture given by Joel Coen at the Nourse Theater in San Francisco. Throughout the anecdotal Q&A I began to take notice of a certain “attitude” Joel and his brother seemed to adapt to when presented with the idea of symbolism in their films as seen through the eyes of their audience. Quite simply: They could care less about your interpretation of their work.
A film like The Big Lebowski means a lot of things to a lot of people but when pressed, Joel Coen simply referred to the character’s origins and how fun it was to make the film. Similarly on Blood Simple, Joel was equally unimpressed by an audience member’s implied interpretation of the film’s musical selections and, for that matter, the musical selections in all their films.
In this lies the secret when viewing The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The film goes anywhere it wants to go. The film does not rely on narrative. Each tale can be one of woe and the next might be quite comical. Morals are sometimes hidden but can also hit you square in the jaw, both leaving us dizzy. The Coen brothers leave it up to the audience to decide on symbolism but it’s best to keep our mouths shut. In the true spirit of artistry, the Coen’s continue to stick to their guns.
— Nathan Robert Blackburn