New to Netflix and select theatres nation-wide is Joel and Ethan Coen’s newest movie, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” As the zany movie title and the previous works of the Coen Brothers (“Fargo,” “No Country for Old Men”) would suggest, it’s a rather quirky movie filled with nuance and twists. This particular film is comprised of six vignettes set in the Post-Civil War midwest, and certain aspects of an early America filled with dangers and discord. Together, these six short films paint a rather unorthodox picture of what life was like in the frontier of a western United States that had yet to be tamed.
It showcases a singing, gunslinging cowboy, an out-of-luck bank robber, a quadriplegic thespian and his gruff caretaker, an elderly prospector aiming for one more big score, a caravan train and the tragedy that befalls it, and an intriguing cast of characters thrust together in a stagecoach headed for mystery. But in typical Coen Brothers’ fashion, underneath the coarse exterior of this Wild West lie ironies and lessons about real life. These characters and the worlds that the Coen Brothers have created for them to live in are deeply rich, and not in the way the bank robber may have hoped. No, the richness of these narratives lies in the lessons that they teach about impermanence and living every moment like they were your last. In the times of these characters, this was an ever-present reality and a simple fact of life.
The film, while occasionally disguised as a comedy (albeit one quite literally filled with gallows humor, at times) is actually a subtly poignant exposé on a time when simply living life was much harder than it is now, yet people lived their lives much more simply. Death, and it’s pending immediacy follows these characters, even those who live on beyond their time on screen, yet they carried on with courage and hope for a better life. The way of the frontier was brutal, and it waited for no one. Yet fortune favors the bold as truly as the old adage foretells, and the life and times of those caught up in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” feature brave souls testing the limits of their bodies, minds, spirits, as well as their core beliefs along a lifetime of adventure and newfound possibilities.
Featuring an excellent ensemble cast, including James Franco (“127 Hours,” “The Disaster Artist”), Liam Neeson (“Taken,” “Schindler’s List”), Zoe Kazan (“The Big Sick,” “Ruby Sparks”), and Brendan Gleeson (“In Bruges,” “Braveheart”), this film is truthfully a ballad comprised of situations, while fictional in actuality, that could have really happened. And the lessons taught in each of the six segments linger on even after the credits roll. Now, perhaps the English major in me is doing what we English majors do - finding meaning where there really isn’t any - but I firmly believe, with supporting evidence from the success and nuance of the other Coen Brothers’ movies, that this movie has more to offer than entertainment. Beneath the gunfighting, the robbing, the drinking, the suffering, and the all-around hooliganism that comprised the Wild, Wild West, lies a movie with effectively affective innuendos about the human condition. If you know where to look, and if you watch with a critical eye, you’ll find there’s much to unpack in this fun film. So, mosey on over to Netflix and see for yourself, pardner.