The Coen brothers’ new film “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is being released. | Courtesy Wikipedia

The theme for “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” borrows from the opening bars of “O What a Beau­tiful Morning” from “Oklahoma!”. The two films, however have little in common beside those opening bars. The Coen brothers’ new film is a far cry from the Rodgers and Ham­mer­stein classic, and nothing about it sug­gests the peace and tran­quility of a beau­tiful morning. 

A col­lection of vignettes, the film follows six dif­ferent stories that share no con­nection. Each vignette comes from a col­lection of short stories written by the Coen brothers over a 20 – 25-year period. In addition to writing the script, the Coen brothers also directed and pro­duced “The Ballad.” Set in the western United States, post-Civil War, the film follows various stereo­typical Wild West figures including a gun­slinger, bank robber, and gold prospector. 

“The Ballad” as a whole is extremely dark. No story ends in a par­tic­u­larly happy way; four of the six vignettes end with the untimely demise of the main char­acter. There’s also a fair amount of vio­lence, which, though expected from a Western film, is pretty gruesome. At times it can cross the line, like when Scruggs shoots off, one by one, the fingers of a man he’s dueling. 

But for all the vio­lence and graphic death, there’s also a certain charm to each story, brought by a very human com­ponent. Each char­acter has their own unique quirks, whether it’s Scruggs’ musical talent, the bank teller’s pre­cau­tionary mea­sures to combat bank robbers, or the prospector’s affection for his gold deposit, affec­tion­ately nick­named “Mr. Pocket”. 

While the stories are engaging and original, it’s the cin­e­matog­raphy that really makes “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” Five of the six tales were filmed on location in New Mexico, Col­orado, and Nebraska, while the final tale, “The Mortal Remains,” was filmed on a Hol­lywood sound stage. The scenery is beau­tiful, the land­scapes seem­ingly untouched. In a way, the beauty of the set­tings dis­tracts from the stories. Perhaps, that was the Coens’ point: beauty often dis­tracts us from even the most hor­rific things. 

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is no mindless shoot-em-up. The Coens explore deeper themes in the film. Nowhere was Darwin’s sur­vival of the fittest more true than the Wild West. The theme is explored in each of the tales, but its essence is no better cap­tured than in “All Gold Canyon”. Set in a breath­taking Col­orado Canyon, the vignette follows a prospector (Tom Waits) whose search for gold is finally rewarded on the banks of a creek the bottom of the canyon. The prospector struggles against the ele­ments, both natural and human. While a brutal theme, the gor­geous setting bal­ances it out. 

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is authentic and original. It’s dark and brooding, while humorous and charming. It’s a story of human struggle in one of the most unfor­giving places and unfor­giving time periods. It’s a breath of fresh air in a world of remakes and reruns. It’s what a film should be.