The Coen brothers’ new film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, is a playful film, though I can’t decide if it’s playful like an overeager puppy unaware of how hard it can bite or if it’s playful like a cat toying with a mouse it’s about to consume. Either way it’s kind of adorable… until it’s not.
The movie itself is a collection of vignettes framed as chapters in a short story collection of Western tales. One concerns a singing cowboy who’s as handy with a six shooter as he is with his six string. Another follows a would-be bank robber who can’t seem to keep his neck out of a noose. The third story is about an armless, legless orator whose benefactor is always on the lookout for a better way to make a cluck, er, a buck. A fourth finds a prospector happy to discover an unspoiled valley peppered with gold. A fifth, the longest in the collection, walks alongside a wagon train that carries a woman to whom misfortune continually befalls. The sixth and final goes the path of Stagecoach but with decidedly supernatural overtones.
Not much good happens in these shorts, at least not for long. There’s always a faster gun. People cheat. Love’s hard to find. We’re quick to despair. And a pretty face and fine art are weak comfort, though they are good. Hold on to what you got while you go it. The West is a wild place, even when it’s bathed in pseudo-Technicolor glory.
(There is also a fun thread running through these shorts that’s there if you want to see it – there’s a kind of meta commentary at work here about the value of stories and place of art in the world and what meaning we should take from any of it. That kind of thing isn’t new to the Coens, but it’s rarely been so explicit. The first, third, and sixth stories in this collection get us as close as I bet we ever get to a clear statement of purpose and meaning from the Coens. I’m satisfied.)
This sort of misanthropy-question-mark has always been essential to Coen brothers’, um, charm. They tend to vacillate between hopeful and hopeless film-to-film. Hail, Caesar! tipped to the hopeful side of the scale, so we were due for a pessimistic film. Never before though has a dour Coens film been so colorful, upbeat, and funny. If you’re not paying attention—maybe you’re catching snippets of movie playing on the living room TV as you wander through during family festivities; this is a Netflix release—you might think it’s downright cheery. Some might call it glib.
I, for one, enjoy it, especially this time of year when the overabundance of brightly colored holiday fare, both in the theaters and on our kitchen table, tends to give me a toothache. It’s always important to keep the caution of Ecclesiastes 9 in view, and I think this passage serves as a better review of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs than I could write:
So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no one knows whether love or hate awaits them. All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.
As it is with the good,
so with the sinful;
as it is with those who take oaths,
so with those who are afraid to take them.
This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of people, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead. Anyone who is among the living has hope—even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!
For the living know that they will die,
but the dead know nothing;
they have no further reward,
and even their name is forgotten.
Their love, their hate
and their jealousy have long since vanished;
never again will they have a part
in anything that happens under the sun.
Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.
I have seen something else under the sun:
The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all.
Moreover, no one knows when their hour will come:
As fish are caught in a cruel net,
or birds are taken in a snare,
so people are trapped by evil times
that fall unexpectedly upon them.