Given what we see every week on the evening news, it's a testament to the genius of the Coen brothers that they can open The Ballad of Buster Scruggs with a story about a gun-carrying "misanthrope" and make us laugh.
It helps, of course, that the tale they tell is a tall one, set in the Old West, or at least the frontier we know from the movies, or from the stories of Zane Grey and Ambrose Bierce — the movie is presented as six chapters in a leather-bound anthology, each prefaced with a color print that prefigures a moving image (the Coens' movie, which is in theaters and streaming on Netflix, is as usual a gorgeous and inventive piece of craftsmanship).
The first features a singin' cowboy named Buster (Tim Blake Nelson) who rides and plucks a guitar like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. His horsemanship gives you a renewed respect for their talent, since playing a stringed instrument in the saddle looks so much harder than mere shooting.
Although Buster may do some of that as well. He holds up a poster that identifies him as an outlaw known as The Misanthrope. Is it apt? Best to leave the answer to the Coens, but it's fair to say that Buster's story invokes the filmmakers' gifts and predilections — for Westerns, for musicals, for violence mixed with comedy, for a whimsical treatment of complex ideas. And for meticulous foreshadowing. There is a considerable body count, and as the five succeeding Old West stories unspool, death emerges as a theme — first as a punchline, then as a chilling presence.
Chapter Two is a tonal match to the first, and features James Franco as a hard-luck bank robber whose story ends with an example of what can literally be described (surely the brothers' intention) as gallows humor. Then the movie darkens, considerably, with a story titled "Meal Ticket" about a traveling huckster (Liam Neeson) who hauls a legless, armless performer (Harry Melling) from town to town, where the man gives impassioned readings from the Western canon — Shelley, Shakespeare, the Gettysburg Address. The air grows colder, the crowds grow smaller, and as less refined amusements capture the fancy of the Neeson's character, we see in his beady eyes the grim calculation of a man weighing relationships against profit.
Next we spend time in a Eden-like valley with Tom Waits, a grizzled prospector looking for gold in a stream, initiating a tidy parable about man and the environment. He may not see the alpine forest for the trees — the camera suggests that the pristine paradise around the treasure hunter is the treasure. The longest and most expansive chapter features Zoe Kazan as a woman crossing the Oregon Trail on a dubious and faltering mission that leaves her in the protective supervision of a kindly cowboy (Bill Heck). An affecting romance develops, and perhaps because Kazan and Heck form such a warm bond, the story's barbed end carries particular sting.
It prepares us, though, for the horror story that closes the film — passengers (Tyne Daly, Saul Rubinek, Brendan Gleeson) on a stagecoach who come to suspect that their ultimate destination is…well, their ultimate destination. Along the way, we listen to Gleeson sing "The Unfortunate Rake," the Irish folk tune that would be Americanized as "The Streets of Laredo" (it becomes composer Carter Burwell's gorgeous musical theme). And so, the melancholy mood that settles over the movie is defined by a song that left Europe, crossed the Atlantic, followed settlers into the territories, and carved itself into our national myth somewhere in Texas.
Buster Scruggs, it seems, is about not just the Old West, but The West in a larger sense. I doubt, for instance, that a frontier sheriff would have called Buster the "misanthrope," but Plato might have. A dog in Kazan's story goes by the name of President Pierce, dating the story to the pre-Civil War term of a president who pushed the ideals of Manifest Destiny. The movie starts in a place called Frenchman's Gulch, and ends with Rubinek's character, known as the Frenchman, talking about the autonomy of the individual, like some frontier Descartes — to the irritation of the woman next to him, who has rather rigid Judeo-Christian ideas and surely would recognize the reference Kazan's character makes to Jacob's Ladder.
When the Frenchman tips his hat to us, he's accepting that his chapter is about to close, and we think again of the little "Meal Ticket" actor (one of the movie's "travelers from an antique land") reading from Ozymandias and its description of a fallen civilization, lost to history. Or quoting Lincoln, describing a nation that shall not perish from the earth, as increasingly disinterested patrons walk away into the wintry night.