Westerns have always held a hallowed space in the annals of Hollywood. The wild, lawless past depicted in these films mirrored a time of immense change for America as a nation for this was a time when railroads were being built to join towns as an industrial revolution swept through its veins. While the burgeoning cities and towns quickly crept out of deprivation, the situation remained much the same in the frontiers where white settlers would often tussle with the indigenous people. Due to the historical significance of that era, we often see film-makers paying their homage to the ‘heroes’ of that time who not only battled against the elements but also against the vagaries of progress.
Westerns, however, have evolved with the times and with our understanding of history. In the early days, Westerns had a very stark distinction between the protagonists and the villains. Morals and motivations were black and white. A majority of the films depicted white settlers being ‘hassled’ by the indigenous tribes, casting them in a bad light. However, after World War II, some film-makers started diverging from this one-sided style of narrative and ushered in a genre we know today as the ‘Revisionist Western’. Made up of a combination of ‘Revisionist history’ and ‘Western’, Revisionist Westerns followed a philosophy that history couldn’t possibly have been that simple. In all fairness, the Indians that had been portrayed as savages were actually trying to protect their lands from intruders. There was no hero or villain in this scenario, and even if there was, they were more alike than ever. Revisionist Westerns, therefore, had a very grey version of morality. There was no clear right and wrong. People/Characters did what they had to do, in order to survive.
Revisionist Westerns, therefore, had a very grey version of morality. There was no clear right and wrong. People/Characters did what they had to do, in order to survive.
The writer/director duo Coen brothers have been closely associated with the Revisionist Western style of cinema. Their 2010 film True Grit followed a teenage girl Mattie who embarks on a journey to avenge her father’s murder with an alcoholic, fickle-fingered lawman named Cogburn whom she hires to do her bidding. The duo are also accompanied by a Texas Ranger who is also tracking the culprit for a different crime he had committed in a different town. While they bicker along the way, their journey embellishes upon them various trials that each of them has to overcome in order to get to their destination. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an assortment of six tales from a Revisionist West where our perceptions are tested with every turn of the story. Adapted into an anthology-style for Netflix, the stories vary from a musical to a comedy to the spiritual even. Every narrative is precluded by a ‘colour-plate’ that shows a single image captioned with a curious line that eventually manifests itself by the end of the story.
The writings of Coen brothers have always had a cheeky quality to it, even when depicting scenes which would be straightaway horrific. In their 2007 film No Country for Old Men the antagonist, a hitman named Anton Chigurh (played by the talented Javier Bardem), carries around an oxygen cylinder as his choice of weapon. Even though the character maintains a chilling visage, the very image of him carrying the cylinder and asking his victims to stand still as he places the nozzle in the centre of their foreheads, is comedic. You are not sure if you want to laugh at how ridiculous that looks or if you want to be horrified that a man was going to be killed. The Coens bring that same flavour into The Ballad of Buster Scruggs into each of their characters – Buster Scruggs played by Tim Blake Nelson (in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), Unnamed cowboy played by James Franco (in Near Algodones), Impresario played by Liam Neeson (in Meal Ticket), to name a few.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is beautifully crafted by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel who has had a long association with the Coens. Delbonnel is also known for his work in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and last year’s Oscar-winning film Darkest Hour. The film may not be gritty for a western but every single shot stands out as if an artist had painted his renditions of how the world would be in all its ephemeral glory. Different palettes have been used for the theme of each story, and that adds to the experience of the narrative. Through its characters, the anthology is able to explore some of the more uncommon facets of the wild wild west. It is not just about burly trigger-happy cowboys. There is a traveling entertainer, a gold prospector, a singer slinger, a simpleton to give you an idea. It is an unpredictable world where there is no set behaviour pattern that you can ascribe any character to. You are always on your toes.
It would be an overstatement in say that the Coen’s have re-invented Revisionist Westerns but this is most definitely the most ingenious rendition of it that I have watched in recent times.