The Bal­lad Of Buster Scruggs is six Coen films for the price of one


Per­haps the big­gest sur­prise about the new Coen brothers movie is that it turned out to be a movie. With their shock move to Net­flix, it was taken as gospel that the un­pre­dictable sib­lings’ next en­ter­prise, a Western an­thol­ogy diced into six dis­crete tales, was to be a tele­vi­sion show. The IMDB still refers to it as Sea­son 1.

In fact, that was never the case. “Every­body got the wrong end of the stick,” laughs Tim Blake Nel­son, who fills the boots of cow­boy trou­ba­dour Buster Scruggs, mis­an­thropic hero of the ti­tle story. Not that this was some cun­ning Fargo-es­que ruse, he has­tens to add. “Joel and Ethan sim­ply chose not to dis­pel any of the mis­con­stru­ing that was go­ing on. This was al­ways a movie.”

10 years ago, Joel had popped over to the ac­tor’s New York apart­ment. “We’re go­ing to make an an­thol­ogy film,” he told his friend, and handed Nel­son the script for the ti­tle episode, a minia­ture Western in­spired by his per­for­mance as croon­ing dim­bulb Delmar in O Brother, Where Art Thou?. As soon as they got around to writ­ing four or five oth­ers, an­nounced Joel, they were good to go.

Big with the Euro­pean art-crowd and Bri­tish hor­ror di­rec­tors in the ’60s, an­thol­ogy flicks are short-story col­lec­tions con­joined by theme or set­ting or genre. Long ago, the brothers had con­tem­plated an an­thol­ogy en­ti­tled The Con­tem­pla­tions, with each

chap­ter un­earthed in a dusty li­brary. O Brother, The Man Who Wasn’t There and A Se­ri­ous Man be­gan life as Con­tem­pla­tions.

Orig­i­nally go­ing by the brevi­ty­de­fy­ing des­ig­na­tion ‘The Bal­lad Of Buster Scruggs And Other Tales Of The Amer­i­can Fron­tier With Colour Plates’, the film’s parts are united by a con­tem­pla­tion of mor­tal­ity. “Mor­tal­ity in a world of un­pre­dictabil­ity, vi­o­lence and vengeance,” says Nel­son. “But as with all of Joel and Ethan’s work, the sub­ject is also the lan­guage of film it­self.”

Shot in New Mex­ico and the Ne­braska Pan­han­dle, us­ing a fa­mil­iar rogues’ gallery of pe­cu­liar faces, each of the 15-minute films-within-the­film ex­plores a dif­fer­ent sub-genre of the Western. “You could also call it a Cu­bist or post­mod­ern look at the genre from six dif­fer­ent an­gles,” says Nel­son.

Here’s a quick break­down of what to ex­pect from each of the tales.


Star­ring: Tim Blake Nel­son, Harry Melling, David Krumholtz

Ac­cord­ing to Nel­son, the ti­tle story ex­plores a tran­si­tion from the Sing­ing Cow­boy Western of the ’30s (as hailed in Hail, Cae­sar!) into “a pre­cur­sor Ser­gio Leone Western”. Pos­si­bly in­volv­ing an ap­point­ment with the gal­lows for Nel­son’s bal­ladeer. “I spent five months train­ing for 15 min­utes of screen time,” he says. “I had to learn to play the gui­tar from scratch and be able to play, sing and ride at the same time. I learned all these pis­tol tricks. And then when I got down to Santa Fe, they added a dance num­ber.”


Star­ring: James Franco, Ralph Ine­son, Stephen Root

In what Nel­son clas­si­fies as the “Hap­less Wan­derer” style of Western, the “Franco one” fol­lows a high-planes drifter whose at­tempts at bank rob­bery and cat­tlerustling are un­done by gen­eral lev­els of in­com­pe­tency and feck­less­ness.


Star­ring: Paul Rae, Jiji Hise

Harken­ing back to those Coen tales of Hol­ly­wood foibles in Bar­ton Fink and

Hail, Cae­sar!, as well as the sa­loon-theatre tra­di­tions of the West, the third fol­lows a strug­gling ac­tor’s en­counter with a du­bi­ous im­pre­sario.


Star­ring: Tom Waits, Sam Dil­lon

“This is the ‘Prospect­ing For Gold’ sub-genre,” says Nel­son. “I don’t know if you’d call that Trea­sure Of The Sierra Madre. It’s not quite that. I’ll just say the prospec­tor movie.” As with many chas­ing re­mu­ner­a­tion from the cold Coen uni­verse, said prospec­tor strikes it rich but comes un­done in his at­tempts to keep it a se­cret.


Star­ring: Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck,

Ethan Du­bin

The fifth is an ex­am­ple of what Nel­son calls the ‘Cov­ered Wagon’ sub-genre, which “goes back to John Wayne’s first movie, The Big Trail”. The story fol­lows a “gal” on the Ore­gon Trail caught be­tween two men, one a mar­riage prospect, the other a stranger who comes to her as­sis­tance.


Star­ring: Bren­dan Glee­son, Saul Ru­binek, Tyne Daly

“This is your stage­coach cham­ber play that was ex­plored by Quentin Tarantino re­cently,” ex­plains Nel­son, re­fer­ring to The Hate­ful Eight. This cir­cles five pas­sen­gers head­ing for a mys­tery des­ti­na­tion. Across all six tales, con­cludes Nel­son, “are a half-dozen char­ac­ters who think they have got it all fig­ured out but they re­ally don’t.” In other words: clas­sic Coen brothers.

Clock­wise from main: ‘The Scruggs’: Bal­lad Tim Of Blake Buster Nel­son as the tit­u­lar sing­ing cow­boy; ‘All Gold Canyon’: Tom Waits stars as a gold prospec­tor; ‘The Mor­tal Re­mains’: a stage­coach cham­ber play with Jonjo O’neill and Bren­dan Glee­son.

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