The Ballad of Buster Scruggs written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen (Annapurna Pictures, Mike Zoss Productions, Netflix, R, 133 min)
Starring Tim Blake Nelson, David Krumholtz, James Franco, Stephen Root, Liam Neeson, Harry Melling, Tom Waits, Sam Dillon, Bill Heck, Zoe Kazan, Brendan Gleeson, and Tyne Daly.
The Next Great American Author
Ever since Mark Twain, the literary-minded in the United States have been clamoring for the next Great American author. Well, maybe arguing more than clamoring.
However, as I explore the many genres of the written word, I’m starting to believe the argument for or against a specific author is fruitless. Instead, I’m coming to believe there’s a Great American genre, the short story.
About a year ago, as I began afresh my pursuit of writing fiction, I put together a list of literary journals and their submission requirements. The list spans longer than 100 journals, largely requesting poetry, flash fiction, and short stories. Even if there’s no market for short stories compared to the market for novels, it’s clear the prestige lies with the short story.
Consumable within one sitting, the genre is tailor-made for a fast-paced lifestyle. And, collections of short stories allow an author to express thematic elements between stories to make an argument larger than the sum of its parts.
So why do visual arts stray away from the short story?
In film, the constraints of consuming a story in one sitting make it natural to tell one long story during that viewing time.
But, even serialized television avoids the format, even if a short story told once a week makes a lot of sense.
Given this backdrop, the Coen Brothers’ new film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, is fascinating largely because it tells a collection of short stories.
Presented in chiastic structure, the western genre represents the link between all six stories told in the film.
The first story, the eponymous Ballad of Buster Scruggs, details the exploits of a jolly bandit (Tim Blake Nelson), clad in white, ruthless while simultaneously jovial in all matters. Perhaps the most “Coen” of the short stories, the tale juxtaposes the directors’ trademarks of flashes of violence against light heartedness.
The pinnacle of the film appears in the middle story where a gold miner (Tom Waits), happens upon the most picturesque valley in cinema, only to begin a meticulous search for the gold nuggets the valley contains. Contrary to type, this vignette is the most hopeful. Even with dark undertones and its own flights of violence, this story moves forward on the unbridled optimism of Waits’ performance.
And the collection of stories concludes with an understated and allegorical trip on a stage coach, with characters pondering their lot in life and the circumstances which brought them in this trip to the frontier.
True to the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs elicits a rare combination of humor and somberness. Even though I got sucked in to the pitch-perfect take on the Western genre, I would be remiss were I not to note one clear failure in this collection of stories.
True to westerns of old, the depiction of Native Americans maintains the stereotype of “other,” which is disappointing given the Coen’s body of work. The two times Native Americans are on screen, they are depicted as violent forces of nature working against the wishes of the protagonists. I do wonder, and I would expect the Coen Brothers could execute a character or supporting character that would run against this type, and I find it unfortunate that such a character wasn’t included.
Nevertheless, if you are a Coen Brothers fan, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is for you. It does an excellent job at crafting short stories with a common theme, the Great American genre.
Verdict: 4 out of 5