The Ballad of Buster Scruggs opens on a hyper-realistic image of Monument Valley. It's the landscape of mesmerizing rock formations where John Ford shot his great mythic westerns. Buster Scruggs himself (Tim Blake Nelson) rides decked out in a spanking clean white hat and white cowboy shirt as he strums his guitar and sings a rowdy absurd ballad about the Old West. This isn't the actual Old West -- that never existed.
It isn't even the Old West of movies; it's a garish exaggeration of western movies, which for Ethan and Joel Coen is a place of cartoonish violence and unrelenting sardonic killing.
This world of the Coen brothers is a perpetual joke, where events are disfigured and characters mocked. It's a grand performance for us to laugh at, and because we are superior to those unfortunate beings on screen, we can see through it all -- we are better and smarter than they are.
The Coen brothers are immensely talented filmmakers. They can make gorgeous images full of poignancy and promise. But what they do with those images can also be a problem and a disappointment.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs tells six separate stories, all set in a distended, artificial Old West. One story even comes from the famed Jack London. The movie starts with a book; a hand turns a page past the table of contents to a lurid illustration of two men rising from a poker game and drawing their six-guns. The dialogue reads, "You seen 'em, you play 'em,' sneered the hard man." It's a classed-up version of pulp, something like the work of Quentin Tarantino, but with a higher polish.
Sometimes the Coens go for the bizarre. In the third story, "Meal Ticket," an itinerant showman (Liam Neeson) travels to small towns in a horse-drawn wagon. His act sits a legless, armless man with a pale face and red-lined eyes on an impromptu stage where he recites poetry, drama and famous speeches to a few spectators standing in silence. It's a creepy sight, in the same way that the segment "Near Algodones" taunts you with disturbing jokes about a hanging from the one tree in a desolate wasteland -- a blend of comedy and straight-out brutality.
These episodes might make you think of Diane Arbus photographs of people who don't fit conventional definitions and assumptions about human life, but Arbus's images are unique, while the Coen brothers mostly put a twist on familiar clichés. It's nasty, but safe and it keeps you distant from those ridiculous characters on screen, instead of lost and unstable, and unable to find yourself.
"The Gal Who Got Rattled" has moments of stunning beauty. A wagon train makes its way across an enormous stretch of prairie. The off-white of the canvas wagon coverings, and women walking in long blue dresses with full-length white aprons, set against the beige landscape opens you to all manner of possibility.
But The Ballad of Buster Scruggs adds ironic twists at the end of the stories. The gal is more rattled than you'd thought; an old prospector isn't dead. But the movie deals in juvenile irony. The ironic moment mostly comes with a bullet. It's like waking up in a children's farce, when you'd thought you were in a game for adults.
For years I've wondered what about the movies of the Coen brothers seems somehow off. I think that The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is finally a cheat. The film is so interesting to look at, at times so beautiful and so well directed that you get lulled into thinking there's something going on that counts – and then when the stories end with yet another bullet to the head, it's a shell game, or a bad game of switcheroo. And you've been fooled, because you'd banked on getting something that mattered for your money.