Coens stake their claim to the Western in ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’
NEW YORK — No location is more central to the iconography of the Western than Monument Valley. Its majestic sandstone buttes, a revolving backdrop for John Ford, have been the setting for countless stagecoach chases and John Wayne passages.
And thanks to the Coen brothers’ “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” this hallowed ground at the Utah-Arizona line is also now home to Tim Blake Nelson, as the all-white-clad “San Saba songbird” Buster Scruggs, strumming his guitar on a horse and singing, with twang and gusto, like a slightly deranged Roy Rogers.
It’s the opening salvo in a six-part anthology film from the Coens that corrals a stampede of Western archetypes and tropes only to invert, distort and deliriously amplify them. But it’s also just the start.
Soon after Buster’s hokey song, “Cool Water,” the body count accumulates and the Roy Rogers-sheen rapidly retreats for far crueler twists and tales of frontier justice across a wanton Wild West, from a tireless prospector played by Tom Waits to a westward traveling wagon train with a dog problem.
The Coens have dabbled in Westerns — think of their sarsaparilla-sipping narrator (Sam Elliott) in “Big Lebowski.” But both “No Country for Old Men,” from the Cormac McCarthy novel, and “True Grit,” from Charles Portis, were foremost about faithfully adapting the books. For the first time, really, the Coens have gone West. Even it was a little accidental.
“We were writing these short movies without any expectation of making them. They were just kind of for fun. They were exercises. They’d go in a drawer,” Joel Coen says in a recent phone interview. “At a certain point, we realized that these particular ones were all Westerns. Because they’re generically related, maybe they could be gathered in some sort of anthology. That was the first three or four of them, anyway. Then we started thinking more concretely about genre and going: Well, what are the subgenres that we haven’t done that might be interesting? Like a prospector story or a covered wagon story or a stagecoach story.”
Changing film economics also helped. “Buster Scruggs” was financed by Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures, which sold the film to Netflix for distribution. Early reports suggested it would be a series, but the Coens always envisioned the shorts as a connected whole.
The initial confusion, along with the unexpected pairing of the Coens — among the most proudly old-school filmmakers — and Netflix, made “A Ballad of Buster Scruggs” a little more confounding than the typical Coen release. What did the Coens think of the arrangement?
“We came into the business at a time when ancillary markets, which were essentially home video markets, were really responsible for the fact that we were able to get our movies financed. Sometimes, that was the principle way our movies were seen. So if you look at ‘The Big Lebowski,’ it did a reasonable amount of box office but it did a phenomenal amount of DVDs. People primarily saw that movie on their television sets,” says Joel Coen. “For us to get too precious about it would be a little bit strange.”
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” which is now streaming on Netflix, was the first film by the streaming company to have an exclusive theatrical run before hitting Netflix. It first played for a week in two theaters and Netflix didn’t report opening grosses. It was a strangely unceremonious launch for the latest film from a pair of America’s most respected filmmakers, and Joel — while stressing that Netflix was great to work with — acknowledges he would have preferred a more robust theatrical release.
“Sure. Absolutely,” Coen says. “I also understand what the pressures are, what the thinking is from the point of view of the company. I think it’s all evolving still. I’m hopeful that it will evolve in a way that everyone gets what they want. Everything’s been thrown up in the air and we’ll see where it lands. The studios are sort of out of the business of making the kinds of movies we make. That’s why it’s important for these companies to be around. They’re figuring it out, and they’re figuring out what filmmakers need from an exhibition point-of-view.”
One advantage of “Buster Scruggs” streaming is that it gives viewers the immediate chance to intimately watch, re-watch and examine a top-tier Coen brothers film, one that revises and contorts old Western myths in morality tales where the only reprieve from death is a good story — and that won’t save you, either.
Tim Blake Nelson, also the escaped convict Delmar O’Donnell in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” has had time to ponder the Coens’ tragicomic worldview.
“Joel and Ethan are decidedly steeped in the Old Testament,” says Nelson. “The world is a really unruly, violent and difficult place. It’s also widely unpredictable. The best we can do is adhere to structure and law and a devotion to powers that are not only beyond our comprehension but completely inscrutable. But even doing what we’re supposed to do is futile, and we’re going to get sideswiped.”
Zoe Kazan, a Coen newbie who stars in the Oregon trail chapter “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” prepped for the occasion by joyfully re-watching every Coen brothers movie. “However successful they have been at doing one thing, they’re not afraid of trying a different kind of thing,” said Kazan. “I watched actor after actor just have a great time.”
Though there are a handful of naturalistic performances in their films (Oscar Isaac in “Inside Llewyn Davis,” Bill Heck in “Buster Scruggs”), Nelson acknowledges that when he or other regulars like Steve Buscemi, John Turturro or Frances McDormand (who has been married to Joel since 1984) are summoned, “these are not actors who are going to wake up and look in the mirror and think: ‘All right, I’ve been called in to do this one for my quiet subtlety,’” Nelson says, laughing.
“They want character actors to take the sorts of chances that Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet and Ernest Borgnine were taking back when directors were generous enough to give them roles,” says Nelson. “That’s the kind of face they want to put in their movies. It goes back to an earlier time.”
The classic Hollywood genres (noir, screwball, Western), as well as literary ones, have likewise held an extraordinary power over the Coens, even if their interpretations add layers of absurdism. “The Big Lebowski,” for example, is at heart a kind of warped Raymond Chandler detective tale. “Buster Scruggs” is, in a way, their John Ford movie.
“It’s always interesting that if you’re dealing with something that has certain rules or expectations that the reader or the audience is familiar with, to play around with those expectations or, to a certain extent, bend or break the rules,” says Joel Coen. “It’s a way of thinking about stories. I guess it’s a little bit like if you’re a poet there are different forms you can write it. You can write a sonnet.”
“There’s very little that’s completely original,” Coen concludes, “and I’m not sure that that’s even very interesting when it does happen.” And then he chuckles.