Why does the new Coen brothers anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs replicate a collection of short stories? Because it’s a Boomer jest. The film’s format recalls those Edward O’Reilly Pecos Bill tall tales that I used to read in my elementary-school library during recess. The Coens update what’s been called O’Reilly’s “visual farce and verbal exaggeration,” starting with an on-screen image of a hardcover book. Its pages flip to brightly colored plates that introduce each of the six tales — all of them distinguished by the patented sarcasm that made the Coen duo a favorite of Baby Boomers, Gen X’ers and Millennials.
Regrettably, that popular appeal doesn’t make them America’s great filmmaking team — it often depends on nastiness and sophomoric arrogance. Each story here illustrates fake-lore Americana: “Buster Scruggs” (a ballad of violence and comic redemption); “Near Algodones” (about individualism felled by anti-social cynicism); “Meal Ticket” (about theater and literature that are our exploitative cultural heritage); “All Gold Canyon” (sentimentalizing a lonely ol’ prospector’s familiar greed); “The Girl Who Got Rattled” (a pessimistic romance showing the folly of American expansion); and “The Mortal Reward” (in which religious superstition and bigotry reveal a doomed people’s fate).
This entire project turns patriotic nostalgia into decadence. It’s an Ocasio-Cortez concept: to denounce the American past while getting freakish, googly-eyed enjoyment out of it. (Okay, it’s also Tarantino-esque.) As smarty-pants Boomers, the Coens cannot resist self-reflexive commentary on film genres. What once launched their surprisingly ambivalent yet insightful winning streak — from The Hudsucker Proxy’s nostalgic mockery to the superb multicultural empathy of The Ladykilllers on to their ambiguous remake of True Grit — has now warped into grim skepticism. These Minnesota natives seem to have taken Bob Dylan’s literature-heavy Nobel address as a prod to disavow their American movie heritage.
Defying the fact that the Western is our richest film genre, the Coens embark on a demythification project. This anthology goes against how John Ford worked — the profundity of his still unparalleled vision of the spiritual and political nature of American character (Judge Priest, Young Mr. Lincoln, My Darling Clementine, The Sun Shines Bright, Wagon Master, The Long Gray Line, Sergeant Rutledge). Ford’s honesty about race, tradition, family, and politics became cinema’s greatest fount of national, human myths next to Hollywood’s biblical epics. Each Coen story undermines those myths.
The yokel gunman (Tim Blake Nelson) who sings “Cool Water” advises, “When you’re without weapons, your actions need to be Archimedean.” Savage Injuns delay the inevitable, ironic lynching of a crook (James Franco). A sideshow freak billed as “Wingless Thrush” (Harry Melling) recites Shelley’s “Ozymandias” and Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” without indicating America’s moral development. Next, man’s second basic instinct (after violence) exploits nature and its bounty — including a genuinely smart-ass Dickensian reference to God as Mr. Pocket. Then marriage, shown as civil partnership, is elaborately ridiculed (“What is worse, dirt or mud? Both, I guess”). Finally, sectarian faith and divine worship converge in the finality of death, manifest destiny made ironic.
Every film lover and American-studies graduate will recognize that the Coens’ references reflect fashionable negativity, following such post-Obama westerns as The Revenant, The Hateful Eight, There Will Be Blood, Meek’s Cutoff. It’s the new American tendency to exchange “certainty for comfort” (pace “The Mortal Reward”) through pop culture. But in the end, the Coens’ anti-myth storytelling —with its contrived classicism and sarcasm (plus two truly affecting performances by Franco and Waits) — is smart but unedifying. It’s an anti-Thanksgiving movie that makes one ashamed of America’s heritage.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs appears just as Jeffrey C. Stewart’s The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke won the National Book Award. At that ceremony, Stewart lamented “these times in which nobody reads.” For the Coen brothers, our literary and cinematic past is full of apothegms and antiquated semantic furbelows that make a mockery of modern illiteracy. Their visual slickness surpasses the wretched ugliness of recent fare (You Were Never Really There, BlackKklansman, Blockers, Suspiria, Crazy Rich Asians), but it’s better only technically. The film’s self-pleasing, self-loathing “smartness” makes this wannabe epic — a story of things half-believed that yet cause Americans to quake — a gruesome landmark of movies in 2018.