Coens stake their claim to the West­ern in ‘Buster Scruggs’


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 Colorado ground 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.”


Tim Blake Nel­son stars as Buster Scruggs in a “The Bal­lad of Buster Scruggs,” a film by Joel and Ethan Coen.


Ethan Coen

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