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.