The Ballad of Buster Scruggs may be a collection of short films about life in the Old West, but each chapter of the titular book within a film has a lot in common with each other—and in common with life today. Now, the Old West is much different from our contemporary lives, especially on a material and a daily-way-of-life level—but what has really changed? We still migrate in order to find a more prosperous life somewhere yonder. We still hope that we might catch a lucky break and strike gold, or at least a metaphorical gold. We still work ourselves to the bone and struggle to make it by, and sometimes go to drastic measures to stay alive. We still may be uncomfortable around others not quite like us, perhaps making us act in unthinkable ways. We still are depleting the land we settle on. Yes, it’s all pretty bleak stuff, but these themes are at the core of the anthology.
There is something very raw and unnerving about most of the vignettes in Buster Scruggs, but there is also something extremely transfixing. While the wry charm and dark wit that you’d expect from directing pair Joel and Ethan Coen remains, many of the stories leave you feeling cold, with your gaze paralyzed on the screen. (And no it’s not from watching the “Meal Ticket” segment, where Liam Neeson and Harry Melling do an excellent job portraying despair and exhaustion during a frigid winter.) Maybe it’s the thought of transporting yourself to that time and realizing you’d never make it, or on the flip side maybe you’d do exactly what these characters do in order to live another day.
“Meal Ticket” is especially dark, with an ending that you fear is coming all along but don’t want to believe will happen. But, oh boy, does it happen. Throughout the stories, the Coens cut away from some of the most brutal moments, but one easily fills in the blanks. These visual omissions don’t make it any less visceral of a viewing experience. Thankfully, after “Meal Ticket,” we go to Tom Waits in “All Gold Canyon,” a somewhat more optimistic story—at least by way of soothing scenery and the simple enjoyment of watching Waits on screen with that scruff and deep growl hollering “Mr. Pocket!” over and over. The pleasantness, of course, is short-lived.
“The Girl Who Got Rattled” is another standout, and seems to be leading toward a less-depressing outcome…until it doesn’t. It’s a reminder of the brutality that can accompany exploration and the unknown—and catching an unlucky break. And much like every life lived, an instant can change everything. Just ask doggo President Pierce!
Ultimately, Buster Scruggs is about survival. It’s about the hopes and wishes we have for the future if we survive, and, much scarier and even harder to cope with, the anxieties and fears that live with us in the moment as we survive, grasping to get to the former. Perhaps that’s the harshest realization from Buster Scruggs, that the Manifest Destiny permeating in the Old West was just as much intoxicating as it was fatal. And in the end, after enduring the fears and struggles and hopes, all that happened to these people was that they became ink to paper, bound in a book. Which, sadly (optimistically?), is all we can ever hope to become.