The oeuvre of the Coen brothers, sometimes dismissed as nihilistic, actually partakes of an unusual metaphysical perspective: a sincere agnosticism, adopted not as a comfortable modern person’s evasion of religious questions but out of what seems like true uncertainty. That sincerity is proven by the way that the Coens are constantly trying on different worldviews in their movies, inhabiting them without condescension and taking their claims seriously, before moving on restlessly to try out something else.
When they do come to rest, it’s usually in a mysterian attitude toward the cosmos and the human place within it — an attitude that’s open to God, to Providence, to capital-M Meaning, while also open to the possibility that the Almighty might be capricious rather than benevolent, or that the Devil might have rather more power in human affairs than the Christian tradition grants to him.
In the last decade or so the Coens’ metaphysical path has wound through the Protestant-Catholic-Jew trifecta (Judaism in A Serious Man, Calvinism in True Grit, and most recently Catholicism in Hail Caesar), the baleful frontier dualism of Cormac McCarthy in No Country for Old Men, and a laughing nihilism suitable to Trump-era Washington in Burn after Reading. Now, with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, they’ve come to rest again in mysterianism — in a mix of fear and laughter, some of it holy and some a little less so, before the extraordinary faculties of man and our brutal subjection to the law of sin and death.
The setting for their “ballad” is the existential starkness of the American West, which they’ve visited several times in their metaphysical mystery tour. This time the visit takes the form of an anthology — six separate tales, well suited to the fragmented attention span of the Netflixing viewer (Netflix funded this movie, and it’s available for streaming in tandem with a limited big-screen release), and also well suited to the Coens’ way of jerking the floor out from under both characters and viewers. Four of the stories end with a sudden death, one with an unexpected resurrection, and the sixth and last — well, that one casts a shadow of mortal anxieties back over all the rest.
Each story works with a western genre cliché — the singing cowboy (the titular Scruggs, played by Tim Blake Nelson), the bank robber (a hapless one, played by James Franco), the traveling impresario (a taciturn Liam Neeson, lugging an armless and legless Shakespeare-reciting prodigy from town to mining camp to town), the prospector (Tom Waits, singing and monologuing in the empty valley where he stakes his claim), the plucky frontierswoman (Zoe Kazan as an embattled maiden on a wagon train), and the stagecoach ride (in which a motley crew of western archetypes who include Tyne Daly and Brendan Gleeson debate the meaning of life).
The stories are not equal in gravity or art. The Franco tale is brief and disposable, the Neeson story is too pleased with its own grimness, the stagecoach ride’s conceit is a little too easily guessed. But the length of each is well chosen. Nelson’s singing cowboy, for instance, who turns out to be a mildly sociopathic killer, has just the right amount of screen time, tweaking the western viewer’s expectations without wearying us with his one-note shtick. Waits’s gold hunt is a small gem, a Jack London short story executed deftly without a wasted scene.
And the longest story is the most potent: Entitled “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” it’s a showcase for Kazan, as the Oregon-bound Alice Longabaugh, engaged by her brother to a rich man waiting for her in the territory, and for Bill Heck, who plays the wagon-train leader who offers her help and then a chance at romance. They are both convinced Protestants, and the Coens treat the religious component of their courtship with customary sincerity and respect — before giving their story an ending that defies any easy providentialism.
The habit of ranking Coen-brothers movies every time a new one appears is the sabermetrics of the male film geek — a particularly masculine numerical fixation that takes some of the pleasure out of the ineffable. So I will resist the temptation to guess whether Buster Scruggs will crack the top ten or even top five once we’ve all had some time to digest and rewatch (a necessary Coen-aficionado process), and resist, as well, the temptation to treat “The Gal Who Got Rattled” as a film unto itself and stick it high up on my own private list.
Instead I’ll just say that this is one of the most Coenish of the Coens’ movies, and a particularly transparent window into their unique sort of metaphysical agnosticism — which is by turns death-haunted and darkly amused by mortality, in love with the world and appalled by its cruelties and caprices, tempted by cosmic pessimism but still looking for meaning in the dark.