The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: How the West Wove Violence into the American Psyche
There is no cinematic genre more quintessentially American than the Western. These are the stories of how—for good or ill—Americans wrestled the hazardous, unsettled portion of the continent away from nature and those who were there before, and realized the sea-to-shining sea ideology of Manifest Destiny. The doing of so was largely realized by those who were pugnacious, violent, and crazy enough to do whatever they felt they must to survive.
Over the past century, westerns have served to immortalize and repudiate these efforts (sometimes both at the same time), creating widely varying mythologies of good and evil. There is the patriotism of John Ford, and the cynicism of McCabe & Mrs. Miller.
Now the Coen brothers via Netflix have released their own addition to this mythology with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs—a love-note to classic western filmmaking, a condemnation of American violence, and an accusation that we as filmgoers might be perpetuating that violence.
When it comes to the western, Scruggs certainly isn’t the Coens’ first rodeo. Previously they’d remade the genre classic True Grit and brought the western formula into the modern era with their adaptation of No Country for Old Men. While these were westerns filmed in earnest, Scruggs almost comes off as more of a deconstruction.
Broken into six unrelated segments, the film harkens back to the western elements the directors love most. Buster Scruggs himself is a goofy singing cowboy ala Roy Rogers. There are shoot-outs (and anyone who knows anything about the Coens knows that they love a good shootout), sweeping landscapes, and idiosyncratic characters of humor, gumption, and wisdom.
Perhaps the most direct homage comes in the first act as Buster’s assassin rides into the film. This is borrowed right out of the Sergio Leone films Once Upon a Time in the Westand The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. We watch as a rider approaches in the distance, trail of dust in his wake, a soundtrack playing that could have been composed by the master of western music Ennio Morricone himself. The mysterious rider is playing a harmonica, for dodgasted sake, which is straight-up stolen from Charles Bronson’s character (the aptly named Harmonica) in Once Upon a Time in the West.
…the Coens make it abundantly clear that—in their view—western expansion, the tough American identity it instilled, the western genre, and we as viewers of that genre, are all complicit in a cycle of violence.
The American identity was largely formed through dangers that were faced and overcome as we clawed, innovated, and pillaged our way West. It took people of grit and courage—more often than not who were a little bit desperate or crazy—in order to drag the U.S. civilization across the continent.
The Coens love certain aspects of that spirit, and characters who possess it are scattered throughout their films. In Scruggs you have weirdos like the gleeful bank-teller armored in frying pans (“Panshot!”) or Tom Waits as a wily, grizzled, (of course) singing prospector. Or the ferret trapper who spends so much time alone that he can’t help but pour out all his thoughts once he finally has company (“People are like ferrets!”). These are brave, tough, slightly-cracked characters who are treated with love by the writers, because these are aspects of their national heritage that they appreciate.
But if the film is a love-note to the western, it is a sad love-note, because the Coens make it abundantly clear that—in their view—western expansion, the tough American identity it instilled, the western genre, and we as viewers of that genre, are all complicit in a cycle of violence.
How the West Was Won: At the Barrel of a Gun
In the first segment of the film, we are introduced to the smiling, amicable, white-clad cowboy of Buster Scruggs. On the surface, he seems like a loveable entertainer, if something of a dufus. We quickly learn, however, that underneath this friendly exterior is a cold-blooded killer who seemingly takes great pleasure in violence.
“Don’t let my white duds and pleasant demeanor fool you,” he implores. “I, too, have been known to violate the statutes of man…and not a few of the laws of the Almighty!”
Scruggs is us as Americans—all Hollywood and Coca-Cola on the surface; murderous violence and insanity beneath.
“Cause for reflection,” he says just after using a mirror to aim at and shoot a man he’d already crippled. The movie is the mirror, and the Coen brothers want us to look into it and reflect on our own national propensity toward violence.
Visually and narratively speaking, the film proceeds to get darker with each segment, as if the Coens are warning that—for Americans—the darkest times are still to come.
The Karmic Cycle of Violence
Next we meet bank-robbing James Franco, who barely escapes his first earned noose only to end up at the end of one he didn’t deserve—because there’s no escaping the cycle of violence. It would not be too much of a digression to mention that Franco acts his ass off at doing his best Clint Eastwood, High Plains Drifter thing, and it is pretty good.
Later we come to Tom Waits, the gold prospector who stumbles into a gorgeous, unblemished landscape and makes the deliberate decision to destroy it in search of profit.
At some point having exhausted himself digging holes all over paradise, our hungry prospector attempts to steal eggs from a nest, but when he realizes that the owl who owns the nest is watching him, he becomes ashamed and decides to take one and leave the rest. He’s being tested by nature, but nature has a lesson for him—there are consequences to our conquest. He and the other settlers of the west are welcome to do what they have to do to survive, but there will be repercussions.
He’s being tested by nature, but nature has a lesson for him—there are consequences to our conquest.
For Tom, these repercussions come in the form of a bullet in the back from a robber. But because Tom only committed a—let’s call it—half-infraction by eating just one of the eggs, he isn’t killed—only wounded and forced to abandon his claim. Then, just before Tom kills his would-be assassin, the claim-jumper sees the owl fly. Owls are symbolically known for their all-seeing eyes. The eyes of nature; the eyes of fate.
Tom was punished but spared because, though his designs were ignoble, he was a man of the sort of qualities the Coens find admirable—ruggedness, ingenuity, songful, and strangeness. His attacker received high punishment less because of his attempt at murder, but owing to his lack of hardiness and know-how to put in the work himself. Nature abhors a vacuum, and all that.
When Waits moseys on, the animals return to the landscape as if he was never there.
This story is a warning: If in our greed we pillage nature, there will be consequences. And when we’re gone, nature will go on fine without us.
The Death of Decency
Now we meet Alice Longabaugh (whose last name, incidentally, was drawn from the real last name of western-era train-robbing hero the ‘Sundance Kid’), who ends up alone on a wagon-train west when her hapless brother dies. Well, almost alone. She still has her brother’s dog—President Pierce.
Alice is among the few genuine innocents in the entire movie, and she finds herself stranded in the middle of her journey because—like so many others—she has been caught up in the doomed plans of a mediocre man. Her seeming salvation coming in the form of one of the leaders of the wagon-train, a decent man called Billy Knapp who proposes to entwine their fates through marriage.
According to the Coens, there is no escaping our karmic consequences for slavery, the genocide of the natives, or our conquest of the land.
We the audience are rooting for these two, but decency doesn’t stand a chance against the karmic cycle of violence.
When other trail-goers complain about the barking from her brother’s dog, Alice agrees that her future husband should put it down. (I know, you’re probably thinking how could he refer to these would-be dog killers as “decent” people, but this is set a long time before PETA and Sarah McLachlan). Billy carries the dog over the horizon, a shot is fired, but when he returns—walking from a flaming sunset landscape that looks straight out of the fires of Hell—he says the dog got away.
“I do not think we’ll see President Pierce again,” he declares. But things come in cycles, and the cycle is already in motion.
Here’s where you need to understand the importance of the dog’s name. Two terms before the outbreak of the Civil War, President Franklin Pierce became notorious after supporting the Kansas-Nebraska Act, through which Kentucky voted in favor of allowing slavery. After the vote, fighting broke out between slavers and abolitionists, and Pierce sent in federal troops to put down the latter.
“It’s a high price,”…Not even the most decent of us will be pardoned.
At some point after our hopes for Alice and Billy have been appropriately built up, she wanders away from the wagon train when she hears President Pierce barking in the distance. The trail boss locates her, but too late—they are attacked by a native war party. He gives Alice a pistol and orders her to shoot herself if he is killed, and in a moment of confusion she thinks he is, so she does.
She and by proxy her fiancé are punished for the cycle of violence unleashed by our nation. According to the Coens, there is no escaping our karmic consequences for slavery, the genocide of the natives, or our conquest of the land.
“It’s a high price,” the trail boss repeats emphatically earlier in the segment during a seemingly unrelated discussion. Not even the most decent of us will be pardoned.
I’m Only Watching
For the finale we are in a dark, claustrophobic carriage with five passengers. Three oddball, exceedingly Coenish characters and two bounty hunters.
“We’re a duo, a tango, a team,” the more frightening of the pair tells us. “They’re so easily taken when they’re distracted. People are. So I’m the distractor, with a little story, a little conversation, a song, a sparkle. And Clarence does the thumping while the attention is on me…They connect the stories to themselves I suppose. And we all love hearing about ourselves. So long as the people in the story are us, but not us. Not us in the end, especially.”
This is the core message of the film. On one hand, our American identity offers glamor and distraction. On the other, we are well known for our thumping. According to the Coens, Western films are tied up in this identity. This thumping.
It’s a snake eating its own tail…the Coen brothers, you, and I watch and enjoy— thereby making us complicit in the whole mad cycle.
The brothers have given us a love-note to the Old West that inspired the tough American spirit and western films they treasure so much. But they also recognize that the very tough spirit they appreciate has trickled through the generations to perpetuate a culture of violence. And the movies they love—Westerns and action flicks that pay homage to the survivors, to the conquest, to the violence—these movies feed into that American identification with violence. It’s a snake eating its own tail—the violence of the West inspired the attitude and the movies; cinematic glorification of the attitude and the violence propagates them further. And the Coen brothers, you, and I watch and enjoy— thereby making us complicit in the whole mad cycle.
In The Hudsucker Proxy—another Coen Bros film that deals heavily with themes of karmic justice—Tim Robbins’ character Norville Barnes has a telling line: “A great wheel that gives each of us what we deserve.”
That’s what The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is all about. A long time ago, America began turning a wheel. We should not be surprised, says the Coens, when that wheel turns us.
You may have noticed that I missed a segment of the film—the one dealing with the murder of the legless and armless entertainer. I’ve saved it for last because I think it makes for a final side note on how the Coens view the role or circumstances of film in American society.
In it, this limbless entertainer—who recites selections from Ozymandias, the story of Cain and Abel, the Gettysburg Address, and Remembrance of Things Past (all works ripe with themes involving humankind’s inability to overcome time, cycles of violence, and the American tendency toward self-destruction)—becomes too much of a burden for his caretaker, who then kills him when he decides he can make more money off a chicken that does math.
If we give up on great art, art that deals with heady themes like Time and Generational Violence, we’ll become a stupid hoard screaming numbers at a chicken.
“Fantastic Arts,” writing on the side of their carriage declares, but when idiot entertainment seems more lucrative than the skilled actor, out the arts go.
This is another warning from the Coens. If we give up on great art, art that deals with heady themes like Time and Generational Violence, we’ll become a stupid hoard screaming numbers at a chicken. We as a culture need to support these more challenging, poignant arts, lest we lose our ability to learn from the lessons of the past. And then the cycle of violence will have truly overtaken us.
“Misanthrope!? I don’t hate my fellow man,” explains Buster Scruggs. “Even when he’s tiresome and surly and cheatin’ at poker. I figure that’s just the human material. And him who finds in it anger or dismay is just a fool for expectin’ better.”
The Coen Brothers—via this love-note of a film—are asking us to be more accepting of our fellow humans, to be more mindful of the consequences of our actions, and to pay heed to the great art that can illuminate us to the predicament of our human condition.
“Straight is the gate,” quotes the decent Alice Longabaugh.
“And narrow the way,” responds Billy Knapp.
It seems the Coen Brothers feel that we’ve strayed from the path.