Into the Sunset: Variations on the Western in No Country for Old Men, True Grit, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

© 2020, by M. Keith Booker

Given their fascination with other key genres of Hollywood’s “Golden Age”—including film noir and screwball comedy—it should come as no surprise that the Coens would eventually take on the genre of the Western. After all, if the Coens’ project can be described as the creation in film of a sort of alternate reality version of America, one might also describe the Western in the same way. No other film genre is so centrally concerned with either constructing (or, later, deconstructing) a mythic version of America as is the Western. And the Coens had already indicated their interest in this genre several times in their early films. Elements of Blood Simple and Raising Arizona evoke the Western, for example, if only because of their Southwestern settings.And this interest in the Western is suggested quite strikingly when the Stranger of The Big Lebowski wanders into that film looking (and sounding) as if he might have just stepped off the set of a Western. In No Country for Old Men (2007) and True Grit (2010), however, the Western genre moves to center stage, though it is typical of the Coens that both films address the general mythic framework of the Western genre rather than the specific movie genre of the Western. Indeed, even though True Grit is, in a sense, a remake of a classic Western film, both it and No Country for Old Men are really direct adaptations of Western novels, rather than recreations of Western movies. It is, in fact, only in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs that the Coens take on the Western film directly, in a sort of revisionist Western that gently lampoons the entire mythology of the Western, while also showing a great deal of fondness for the genre.

No Country for Old Men: Apocalypse in South Texas

Between 2001 and 2007, Joel and Ethan Coen made only two feature-length films, Intolerable Cruelty (2003) and The Ladykillers (2004). Moreover, these two films have both been rated by many critics as among the worst and least inventive films of the Coens’ entire career. In 2007, meanwhile, the brothers released No Country for Old Men, which some might also have expected to continue their streak of diminished creativity. After all, though many of their earlier films had been influenced in important ways by novels, No Country for Old Men was the first film made by the Coens that was literally an adaptation of a novel, in this case the 2005 novel of the same title by Cormac McCarthy. And the adaptation is rather faithful—certainly more faithful than one might expect of artists with the creative chops of the Coens. But the adaptation is also highly creative, and the film is the only one by the Coens to date that has won the Oscar for the year’s Best Picture. It also won Oscars for the brothers for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay (as well as a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Javier Bardem) and was nominated for four other Oscars, making it arguably the high point in the Coens’ career, at least in terms of mainstream success. In terms of its overall tone, it is also perhaps the single Coen Brothers film that seems most unlike all the others, though the Coens were certainly never known for producing cookie-cutter films from a set formula. A careful dusting, however, shows that No Country for Old Men displays far more of the brothers’ fingerprints than might be immediately obvious.

The film, like the novel, is set in 1980, which adds a certain irony to the fact that both versions of the story (though perhaps more the novel) are informed by an apocalyptic, end-of-the-world feel. After all, the novel and the film appeared essentially a generation after the time in which the story is set, yet the world goes on. The film follows the plot of the novel quite closely, even incorporating much of its dialogue directly. And both works are generically similar, in that both are clearly updates of the Western (and somewhat cynical updates that call into question many of the mythic implications of the genre in its classical form).[1] In particular, if the classical Western captures a sense of the U.S. as a young nation, expanding westward with great days ahead, both versions of No Country for Old Men depict a U.S. and a Westthat are old and tired, with little hope for the future.

The overall plots of the novel and the film are quite similar, beginning with a drug deal that goes wrong in the Southwest Texas desert, leading local welder (and Vietnam veteran) Llewelyn Moss (played by Josh Brolin in the film) to discover a large stash (over $2 million) of abandoned cash. Most of the plot of the film involves the attempts of various parties involved in the original transaction to recover the cash from Moss—and Moss’s attempts both to keep the cash and to stay alive. It is never made completely clear exactly who these parties might be, though one group seems to be associated with a Mexican drug cartel[2], while another seems associated with forces within the corporate world of the United States, identified in the novel (but not in the film) as the “Matacumbe Petroleum Group,” suggesting a level of corruption and ruthlessness with which the oil industry has often been associated (and making an anti-capitalist point in the novel that is far more specific than anything in the film). The principal danger to Moss through most of the story, however, is menacing hitman Anton Chigurh (played by Bardem in the film), who seems aligned with some sort of shadowy third force that is never identified.

Most of the action involves Moss’s attempts to evade the forces that pursue him, while local sheriff Ed Tom Bell (played by Tommy Lee Jones in the film) does everything he can (which is basically nothing) to protect Moss and his young wife Carla Jean (played by Kelly Macdonald in the film). Along the way, the forces of corporate America employ an ex-Special Forces colonel, Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), to kill Chigurh, but the almost unstoppable Chigurh kills Wells instead. Numerous other bodies litter the landscape of the book and the film as well, ultimately including that of Moss, as well as a number of Mexican hitmen. In the novel, Chigurh kills Carla Jean as well, while the film leaves her fate unclear, thus providing one of the moments in which the Coens tweaked the novel to make it a bit less bleak—or at least a bit more ambiguously bleak. After Chigurh confronts Carla Jean in her mother’s home (just after her mother’s funeral), the film suddenly cuts to him leaving the home. He does check his boots, possibly for signs of blood (he has avoided the blood of his victims throughout the film), but there is no other evidence of what might have happened. However, two boys riding by on bikes do not appear to have heard a gunshot, whereas Chigurh shoots Carla Jean in the novel.

Both the novel and the film of No Country for Old Man contain all the trappings of a classic Western, including the South Texas setting and a story that is replete with desert landscapes, firearms, hats, cowboy boots, lawmen, and outlaws. There are even a few horses, though the modes of transportation are generally more modern and mechanized, while the weaponry used is also considerably more advanced than that seen in typical Westerns. The film makes particularly good use of Texas accents as well—especially in the case of Texas native Jones’ portrayal of Bell. The regional accents here, however, seem authentic and mostly lack the comic intonations of those in a film such as Fargo. Of course, it is no surprise by 2005 for McCarthy’s writing to participate in the Western genre, as he had written several Westerns by this point. His Westerns, however, might really be seen as anti-Westerns that call attention to shortcomings in the genre, as when the shocking violence of his masterpiece, Blood Meridian (1985), reveals the violent tendencies that underlie both the genre and American history itself. One thinks here of Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation, a scholarly study of the Western film that treats the genre as a cultural representation of the violent tendencies in American society as a whole. Slotkin argues that the Western is indicative of the way in which the American national identity is built on the notion of expansion into the frontier through violent (but triumphant) conflict with “savage” foes. In the world of McCarthy’s Western fiction, however, the expansion and the triumphs are all behind us, and we are left to contemplate the notion that we Americans are ourselves the only savages left.

The modes of violence pursued in the classical Western are cleared coded as masculine, and one key aspect of the Western as a genre is its exploration of masculinity and masculine modes (and codes) of conduct. Stacey Peebles thus argues that the conventional Western is the perfect genre for displays of masculine power; however, she also argues that No Country for Old Men undercuts the traditionally masculine solutions that are typical of the Western. “When we talk about Westerns,” she says, “we talk about the representation of masculinity and the assignation of power.”[3] But No Country, for Peebles,defies the conventions of the Western, revealing “a particularly masculine dread—that you can’t always keep things in front of you and under your control. Things won’t hold still, waiting for the assertion of mastery.”[4] It is certainly the case that numerous characters are virtual paragons of masculinity, from the traditional cowboy sheriff Bell, to the swaggering ex-Special Forces operative Wells, to the working-class ex-soldier Moss. Yet Chigurh, who seems a virtually sexless (and even inhuman) figure, trumps them all and is able to deploy violence more effectively than any of them. Bell is never able to catch up with Chigurh; the ultra-cocky Wells is dispensed with by Chigurh with laughable ease; and the manly Moss is reduced to running for his life, at one point wandering the streets of Mexico and then South Texas in a comically un-masculine hospital gown—made all the more ridiculous and unmanly by the fact that he is also wearing Larry Mahan cowboy boots in the film, a touch that is absent from the same scenario in the novel. In the worlds of both the novel and the film, the kinds of masculine conduct that tamed the West no longer serve as viable solutions to the problems of a society that is winding down, rather than just coming into its own.

This concern with interrogating conventional codes of masculinity makes the story a perfect one for the Coens, who so often perform similar interrogations in their films. The apocalyptic tone is also suited to the Coens, despite the typical comic intonation of their films. Apocalyptic notes have arisen in their films from time to time at least since Barton Fink—and it is notable that A Serious Man, released only two years after No Country for Old Men, also ends on a strongly apocalyptic note, even if it is one with a dash of humor added in. An apocalyptic tone is also typical of the fiction of McCarthy, whose work in general resembles that of the Coens far more than a superficial examination would suggest. Nor should it be surprising that, for his next novel after No Country, The Road (2006), McCarthy would depart from the Western genre and shift to an all-out postapocalyptic narrative in which the American civilization that seems in such a crisis in much of McCarthy’s earlier fiction has finally been destroyed altogether. Of course, the conventional Western and postapocalyptic fiction have much in common, in that both typically feature individuals who are trying to make their way in a world without the conventional protections (but also without the conventional restraints) offered by modern civilization. In the Western, though, that civilization lies in the future, supplying a potentially utopian dimension of hope, while the postapocalyptic narrative is much darker, with civilization lying in the past and frequently seeming unlikely to resurrect itself.

Both the novel and the film of No Country for Old Men partake of a number of genres, in addition to the Western and apocalyptic fiction. Importantly, Slotkin notes that the Western film declined in importance as a mythic exploration of the American national identity in the 1970s, to be largely supplanted by other genres, including the crime film and horror films, especially slasher films.[5] From this point of view, it is worth noting that the 1980 setting of No Country for Old Men places it at a time in which the decline of the Western was quite advanced. But it might be even more significant, in terms of Slotkin’s argument, that both the novel and the film versions of No Country for Old Men strongly supplement their basic Western matrix with elements from both the crime drama and the slasher narrative.

Chigurh is in many ways the story’s most striking figure, especially in the film. The film’s key “criminal” figure, he reverses the usual terms of both the Western and crime fiction by being the hunter rather than the hunted. At times, he seems like judge, jury, and executioner, and at other times he seems almost like an agent of the Old Testament God, wreaking vengeance on those whom he feels have violated a code of conduct. Yet he is also a ruthless killer who seems to enjoy killing just for the sake of it. He also apparently enjoys toying with his victims, though his habit of having them call a coin toss to determine whether they live or die also has philosophical implications: he seems to like the idea that whether innocent people live or die can be determined by a coin toss—as if it verifies his vision of the capriciousness of the world. He does seem to behave according to a certain code and a certain logic, but it is almost impossible for ordinary humans to decipher just what they might be. He is the kind of man that one might associate with apocalyptic times. Large and menacing, Chigurh moves beyond the bounds of normal hitman territory in almost every way. For example, his favorite weapon of death is a compressed-gas-driven bolt pistol of a kind used to slaughter livestock. The weapon is not really a practical one—it requires that Chigurh get close enough to his victims to place the barrel of the pistol against their foreheads, and it also requires him to carry around a heavy cylinder of compressed gas wherever he wants to use it. But it is certainly a colorful and gruesome weapon, if only because of the association with slaughterhouses. He literally slaughters his victims, helping to give his character an almost comic-book quality, though what the large, frightening, shambling, and virtually indestructible Chigurh resembles most is probably Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and other slasher-film villains.

In the film, Bardem’s Oscar-winning performance imparts a sense of almost supernatural menace to the character of Chigurh, which makes him seem even more like a slasher-film serial killer while also enhancing the apocalyptic tone of the film. The book, on the other hand, relies more on Sheriff Bell’s clear sense that things are coming to an unpleasant end to achieve its apocalyptic tone. Seemingly a character from an earlier age (and an earlier genre), Bell is the virtual embodiment of the sense in both novel and film that the world itself has become old and tired. Bell (in both versions of the story) feels that the world has developed in strange new directions that have largely passed him by. He feels, he says, “overmatched” by the world of 1980, which includes people such as Chigurh who are beyond Bell’s understanding. The events of the story then confirm this feeling, to the point that Bell retires from law enforcement by the end of both the novel and film, preferring to spend his time sitting idly out of the path of the inexorable march of time toward a seemingly apocalyptic future. Bell, though, is a slightly darker figure in the novel, in which he has spent most of his life trying to make amends for an incident during World War II when he abandoned his unit and then accepted an inappropriate Bronze Star for his actions. He is thus dogged by shadows of guilt that are not mentioned in the film, pointing toward the fact that, whenever the film differs from the novel, it is generally to remove some of the darkness and to take a somewhat lighter tone.[6] Bell also dominates the novel to a far greater extent than he does the film, given the novel a sort of moral center and leaving the less centered film an occasional chance for Coenesque unruliness.

Peter Bradshaw, writing for The Guardian, saw No Country for Old Men as a sort of corrective to the “quirky excesses” that, for him, sometimes undermine the Coens’ work. Nevertheless, he felt that he could detect a typical Coenesque style in the film, noting that “the savoury, serio-comic tang of the Coens’ film-making style is recognisably present, as is their predilection for the weirdness of hotels and motels.” But, he added, in the case of this film such Coenesque touches have been supplemented by “a real sense of seriousness, a sense that their offbeat Americana and gruesome and surreal comic contortions can really be more than the sum of their parts.”[7] Other critics were equally enthusiastic. The Coens’ old naysayer Roger Ebert, by this time fully won over by the brothers, proclaimed the film a “miracle” on the order of Fargo.[8]

In fact, No Country for Old Men has much in common with Fargo, even if it is presented with an altogether darker tone. Even the film of No Country, though, has its moments of dark comedy—a type of moment that is missing in the novel altogether. Perhaps the film’s funniest line is delivered by Carla Jean, whose exaggerated Texas accent (as delivered by the marvelous Scottish actress Macdonald) comes as close as any in the film to sounding inherently comic. As Llewelyn puts Carla Jean on a bus for Odessa and her mother’s home, where she will presumably be safely out of the line of fire, the seemingly naïve young woman (she is only nineteen in the novel, though her age is not specified in the film) complains to her husband that her mother will “cuss you up and down.” “You should be used to that,” he replies, suggesting a problematic relationship with his mother-in-law. “I’m used to lots of things,” she says, sardonically. “I work at Walmart.” This line and the comic attitude it implies are not found in the book, though the novel does specify that she works at “Wal-Mart” in the book, using the designation for the retail chain that was current in 1980.

Walmart, often criticized for ill treatment of its workers, is perhaps an easy target here, and it is typical of the work of the Coens that this potentially anti-capitalist jab is delivered as a joke, rather than as a serious expression of outrage at corporate malfeasance. One might compare here a line in the director’s cut of the Joss Whedon-scripted Alien: Resurrection (1997), in which we are informed that the predatory Weyland-Yutani Corporation, a principal villain of the earlier Alien films, has now succumbed to a hostile takeover by the presumably even more predatory Walmart.[9] In neither of the films do we learn anything new about Walmart, while in both films the satirical treatment of the retail giant is performed with a light enough touch that one could even imagine Walmart executives being amused.

Later, we are treated to another comic scene as Carla Jean and her mother (played by Beth Grant) ride in a cab as they head for the bus station so they can travel to El Paso to join up with Moss and the money. The mother makes it clear, in a Texas accent even more outrageous than her daughter’s, that she really hates Moss. “No” and “good,” she tells her unreceptive daughter, have, when used in combination, always been the only words she could think of to describe Moss and Carla Jean’s future with him. And now here she is, suffering from cancer in 90-degree heat and heading for El Paso, where she knows no one—all because of her feckless son-in-law, whose troubles, she seems to feel, were gotten into just to cause more miseries for her. And she isn’t even aware of the fact that their cab is being closely tailed by a carload of Mexican gangsters. She then tops off her contribution to the film when she encounters one of the gangsters, well-dressed, at the bus station, finding herself unable to resist commenting, “It’s not often you see a Mexican in a suit.”

There are also other self-conscious hints that we are, in fact, in another of the Coens’ alternate realities (and not in the real Southwest Texas or even in the fictional Southwest Texas of McCarthy’s novel). As Joel Coen put it in an interview, the brothers were trying to produce a version of Texas that was like “something preserved in legend, a collection of histories and myths.”[10] For Coen fans, the casting of Coens regular Stephen Root as the unnamed corrupt businessman who hires Wells cannot help but raise a flag. Root is perfectly fine in the role and only seems slightly off-key, but the fact that we have seen him in so many odd roles in Coen films before increases the sense that he somehow does not belong in the dark and dangerous world depicted in McCarthy’s novel—and in the bulk of the Coens’ film. Granted, he ends the film gurgling to death on the floor after Chigurh shotguns him in the throat, but the scene is almost darkly comic—partly because of the casting and partly because of the aftermath, in which a timid accountant claims to be “nobody” and hopes that Chigurh won’t shoot him as well. (We never learn whether he does, though the film hints that he does not.)

Perhaps the most important self-referential nod in the film is one that might go entirely unnoticed. It occurs when a wounded Chigurh sets off an explosion outside a South Texas pharmacy as a distraction so that he can go inside and make off with drugs and supplies to tend his injuries. This same scene occurs in the novel, where the pharmacy is simply called “the drugstore on Main.”[11] For many viewers it will mean nothing that, in the film, the drugstore is called “Mike Zoss Pharmacy.” After all, it makes perfect sense in the visual medium of film that the pharmacy would have a sign on front displaying its name, something that is unnecessary in the novel. However, some viewers will no doubt be aware of the fact that the Coens’ own film production company is called “Mike Zoss Productions,” which in a sense means that this pharmacy is actually called “the drugstore in a Coen Brothers film.” In addition, the name of the production company comes from Mike Zoss Drugs, the St. Louis Park, Minnesota, pharmacy (which was founded in 1951 and closed only in 2009) at whose soda fountain the brothers used to hang out as kids. By dropping a bit of Minnesota terrain square onto Main Street in a Texas town, the Coens are signaling that this Texas town is a movie fiction created by them partly from their own experience and not just from McCarthy’s novel or the real Texas.

Anton Chigurh Pharmacy Car Explosion - No Country for Old Men (2007) -  Movie Clip HD Scene - YouTube

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about No Country for Old Men is that it still functions so well as a darkly apocalyptic Western/crime/horror drama despite such touches of Coenesque whimsy. No doubt this effect might be at least partly attributed to the fact that the Western is a larger-than-life genre to begin with, so that it can accommodate a considerable amount of generic play, while still remaining legitimately within the bounds of the genre. It is perhaps also for this reason that the Coens’ other major entry in the genre, True Grit, also seems like such a legitimate Western, despite the fact that it breaks many rules of the genre and despite the fact that it seems so natural, knowing the Coens, to expect True Grit to be an anti-Western—and especially to be a sort of subversive rejoinder to its illustrious predecessor, the 1969 version of the same story that won John Wayne his only Academy Award.

True Grit: New Takes on the Old West

The Coens’ 2010 version of True Grit won no Academy Awards, though it was nominated for a total of ten, including Best Picture and most of the other major awards, while the 1969 film was nominated only for Best Actor and Best Original Song (the latter of which it did not win). The Coens’ film, meanwhile, was avowedly based directly on Charles Portis’s 1968 novel, by-passing the 1969 film altogether, though it is impossible to ignore the existence of the 1969 film when assessing the 2010 version. Indeed, comparing the Coens’ adaptation of the novel with the earlier Wayne vehicle is one of the best ways to appreciate the achievement of the 2010 film. This comparison shows that the Coens’ version of True Grit is both more faithful to the original novel and more creative in its deviations from the novel than is the 1969 film. At the same time, the Coens film seems both more realistic and more inventively cinematic than the 1969 version. Such combinations might seem paradoxical, but they actually highlight some of the key aspects of the Coens as the creators of an alternate reality America, both in this film and throughout their joint career.

Many critics, for example, have characterized the Coens’ version of True Grit as their most authentic genre film and the one that involves the least in the way of postmodern play and genre subversion. In point of fact, there is a great deal of play with genre conventions in True Grit, but it is performed more subtly than in most Coen Brothers films. It is, in fact, a doubly coded film that works perfectly well when read as a straightforward genre exercise but becomes even more interesting when one becomes aware of the slight, but important deviations from genre conventions in the film. Alternate reality narratives often work best when their deviations from the original reality are slight, almost undetectable, and this film works very much in that mode.

All three versions of True Grit are built upon the same basic plot, which involves the attempts of fourteen-year-old Arkansan Mattie Ross to track down the scoundrel Tom Chaney, after he murders Mattie’s father in the beginning of the story. The teenager is aided in her quest by prickly, hard-drinking U.S. Marshal Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn as they pursue (and eventually overtake) Chaney in the Choctaw Nation of what is now eastern Oklahoma. The differences in the ways the three versions tell this basic story are extremely telling, however, suggesting that the Coens’ adaptation is more faithful to the spirit of the original novel—and perhaps superior to the novel in some aspects. These differences also make some fundamental statements about the Western as a genre.

By the late 1960s, the Western film genre was self-consciously moving in new directions, both to correct perceived flaws in the classics of the genre (such as racist depictions of Native Americans) and partly to reflect a changing understanding of America’s history and national identity. To an extent, John Ford, the leading director of the classic Western, helped to initiate this trend toward revisionary Westerns with his last work in the genre, Cheyenne Autumn (1964), which reverses the terms of many of Ford’s earlier films by sympathetically portraying Native Americans as the victims of official white American treachery (and, by extension, inaccurate Hollywood representations). Within a few years, works such as Abraham Polonsky’s Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969) and Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970) extended this trend, as films sympathetic to Native Americans became more common. During the same period, “waning of the West” films also initiated a new focus on the closing of the frontier and the fact that the onward march of civilization had made the adventurous cowboys and outlaws of earlier Westerns virtually obsolete. Richard Brooks’s The Professionals (1966), George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), and Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) made this category a major cinematic phenomenon. Finally, both Little Big Man and The Wild Bunch also took advantage of the inherently allegorical possibilities of the Western to draw parallels between the conquest of the West and the contemporary American involvement in Vietnam. Anti-Vietnam war Westerns such as Ralph Nelson’s Soldier Blue (1970), Don Siegel’s Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970), and Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid (1972) quickly followed.

Amid all of this revisionary activity, the original 1969 film adaptation of True Grit wasdefinitely something of a throwback—as one might expect from a film starring Wayne, the biggest star of the classical Western and a man who became a sort of walking embodiment of conservative resistance to the winds of change that were sweeping America in the late 1960s. It should also be noted that the film was directed by Henry Hathaway, who had been making classic Westerns with such stars as Randolph Scott for nearly four decades and who had already developed a close working relationship with Wayne as well. The film also harkens back to earlier Westerns in that—like so many of the classic films that made Wayne a star in the first place—it features glorious Western landscapes as a crucial component of it cinematic effect. In this particular film, these landscapes are dominated by the mountains of Colorado, where the 1969 True Grit was filmed. However, the film nominally maintains the Arkansas/Oklahoma setting of the novel, which in reality looks nothing like Colorado. As a result, this adaptation seems a bit awkward, as if trying to force the square peg of Portis’s somewhat unconventional Western into the round hole of classic Wayne vehicles like Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956).

One might argue that the 1969 film takes place in an alternate reality in which western Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma have the same terrain as the Colorado of our world. But, in the case of that film, this effect is primarily a conservative and nostalgic one intended to place this film in the world of the classic Western. As such, it misses an opportunity to critique the classic Western’s heroization of the “taming” of the West; unlike both the novel and the 2010 film, it fails to remind audiences that a great deal of the effort to tame the West took place in much more mundane environments than the ones we see in classic Westerns, involving grueling labor and intense physical hardship more than glorious adventure. The Coens’ version of True Grit was largely filmed in New Mexico, but it places much less emphasis on the landscape than does the classic Western and there is very little about the landscape of the film that stands out as something that simply couldn’t be found in Arkansas or Oklahoma.

In almost every case in which the 1969 film differs from the novel, the changes are conservative ones intended to tone down and make more palatable to Wayne’ fanbase certain aspects of the novel. For example, a public hanging scene that occurs early in the 1969 film is enacted with the spirit of a church picnic. A man sings “Amazing Grace” as the crowd mills about in a park-like atmosphere. Kids play on swings, while vendors circulate through the crowd selling peanuts. The hanging itself occurs quickly; three young white men convicted of unspecified crimes stand on the gallows, are hooded, and then hanged as the platform drops from beneath them. Mattie (Kim Darby) looks on with her black hired man Yarnell (Ken Renard) at her side; she seems slightly disturbed by the spectacle but is then heartened by the hope that Judge Parker, who ordered these hangings, will also be willing to hang Tom Chaney should he be captured.

This potentially chilling scene is presented in a matter-of-fact way without any discernible satirical intent. Instead, it merely helps to establish the Western ambience, identifying Fort Smith, Arkansas, as a frontier town where rough justice prevails, something one often finds in the classic Western. It also chooses not to elaborate on its basis in historical reality: the fact that, with “hanging judge” Isaac Parker leading the way as U.S. District Judge from 1875 to 1896, Fort Smith developed a reputation as a sort of execution center. During his tenure as judge, Parker sentenced 160 people to death, many of them having no right of appeal, though roughly half were ultimately pardoned or otherwise escaped execution. A reconstruction of the gallows where 86 people were hanged between 1873 and 1896 (79 of them sentenced by Parker during his tenure) stands today at historical site maintained in Fort Smith by the National Park Service, almost as if this history is something to be proud of.[12] It might be noted, though, that the town of Fort Smith opted to renounce this legacy soon after Parker left office, burning the original gallows where so many had died.

Portis, an Arkansas native who was educated at the University of Arkansas and who has spent most of his life in the state, would have been well aware of this history. For example, he identifies the executioner in the scene as George Maledon, which was in fact the name of an executioner who worked under Judge Parker from the mid-1880s until 1891 and again in 1894. Maledon, known as the “Prince of Executioners,” largely because of the fame he gained after retirement by assembled a traveling road show illustrating relics from his career as a hangman, would thus not actually have been the executioner in 1878, when the novel is set. Portis clearly opted to deviate from historical fact in order to use Maledon’s fame to call attention to the larger historical record of hangings in Fort Smith. Portis also presents the hanging scene in much more graphic detail, making the 1969 film’s version seem sanitized in comparison. In the novel, for example, the three men being hanged are each given a chance to speak final words. One of the men is a Native American, who also turns out (somewhat to the surprise of the rather sanctimonious Mattie) to be a Christian whose last words are to express confidence that he will soon “be in heaven with Christ my savior.”[13] Then, when Maledon pulls the lever, the two white men go quickly to their deaths, their necks broken in the drop. The Indian, however, jerks and spasms for more than half an hour before he dies, having lost so much weight in jail awaiting execution that he was too light for the fall to break his neck.[14]

Mattie’s narration does not speculate on the reasons for the Indian’s weight loss in jail, though there would seem to be a subtle implication that he might have been mistreated (because of his race) while in custody. The 1969 film omits the Indian altogether, while the Coens’ film maintains the Native American, but omits the gruesome details of his protracted death. They do, however, include their own reference to the unequal treatment of Native Americans in the nineteenth-century justice system. Before they are hooded, the two white prisoners give almost verbatim the same speeches that they give in the novel. When it comes the turn of the Indian, however, the hood is slapped roughly over his head just as he begins to speak, denying him the chance to have a final word that had been given the white prisoners. Importantly, as the prisoners drop to their deaths, the crowd in the Coens’ film applauds happily, emphasizing the extent to which the executions are treated callously as an entertainment and delivering a far stronger indictment of the public hangings than is to be found in either Portis’s novel or Hathaway’s film, both of which depict the crowd as reacting with more shock and dismay at the moment of the hanging.

The various presentations of this scene are indicative of the way in which, when Hathaway’s film deviates from the novel, it does so in ways that water it down or remove material that might run counter to the mythologizing intent of the film itself. Again (especially in terms of major elements in the story), the Coens’ film generally deviates far less from the novel than does Hathaway’s. When the Coens do stray from the novel, however, these deviations from the original novel tend to make the narrative stronger, sharpening its treatment of potentially controversial material. Hathaway’s departures from the novel, on the other hand, seem designed to make his film a more conventional genre exercise and a more effective vehicle for its star.

It should be noted, for example, that the novel is narrated by a much older version of Mattie, who is looking back on experiences from her youth. The novel also includes a final scene, set in 1903, in which Mattie, now thirty-nine, travels across Arkansas to Memphis to attend a Wild West show in which Cogburn has been performing as a sharpshooter. To her great disappointment, the reunion never occurs because Cogburn dies only a few days before she arrives. Instead, Mattie meets Cole Younger and Frank James, once-feared outlaws who are also now performers in the show and who are old compadres of Cogburn, having served with him (and Frank’s brother Jesse) in the notorious Confederate guerrilla unit Quantrill’s Raiders, known for having committed some of the greatest atrocities of the Civil War, especially in a murderous 1863 assault on the anti-slavery town of Lawrence, Kansas, killing nearly 200 citizens and looting and burning the town.

Cogburn’s participation in Quantrill’s Raiders is not mentioned in the 1969 film, which allows it to avoid associating Wayne via his character with a group that was arguably engaged in mass murder. Leaving out this connection also means that the Cogburn of this film need not be associated with such outlaw figures as Younger and James. Indeed, this film omits the Memphis coda altogether, though this coda does have a basis in reality: Younger and James did, in fact, tour the south as headliners in their own Wild West show in 1903. When Mattie encounters them in the novel, she remembers a story Cogburn had told her twenty-five years earlier, in which she learned that Younger had once saved Cogburn’s life and that the killing of a bank clerk in Northfield, Minnesota, for which Younger had been sentenced to life in prison in 1876, might actually been carried out by Jesse James. (Both Jesse and Frank James are believed to have participated in the Northfield robbery, though neither was convicted of any crimes associated with that event.) When Mattie meets the two old men (who are relaxing and sipping Coca-Colas, key signs of the incipient growth of American consumer capitalism at that time in history) she is polite and respectful to Younger, who is courteous in turn. Frank, whom Mattie notes is now believed to have committed the killing for which Younger served twenty-five years in prison, neither rises nor removes his hat in the presence of the lady, who gruffly tells him not to bother. “Keep your seat, trash!” she says, apparently having lost none of her sand in the quarter-century since her adventures with Cogburn. The Coens’ 2010 film includes an almost direct transcription of this part of the novel, including the fact that the thirty-nine-year-old Mattie is shown with her left arm missing below the elbow, having lost that part of the arm due to a snakebite received in the 1878 part of the narrative. In the sanitized 1969 film, Mattie does not lose her arm but merely must wear a sling while it heals.

The omission of the coda in the 1969 film might seem inconsequential, but the Wild West shows that are thereby removed from the narrative actually form an important part of the historical background of the Western film, beginning the mythologization of the West that those films continued.[15] It was, of course, no coincidence that the rise of Wild West shows (the one organized by Buffalo Bill Cody being the most famous) occurred at the same time as the rise of American consumer capitalism. The West and its legacy were quickly converted into consumer products to be packaged and sold to eager consumers looking for a whiff of the kinds of adventure that had once supposedly been available in the Wild West. By bringing in the Wild West show, both the novel and the 2010 film thus make important de-mythologizing points about the role of the West in modern popular (and consumer) culture, points that are absent from the 1969 film through the omission of the coda.

Perhaps the most obvious differences among the three versions of True Grit occur in the realm of characterization, with the characters of the Coen’s film adhering much more closely to those in the novel than do those in the 1969 film, while also producing far more interesting deviations. The biggest change in characterization from the novel to the 1969 film involves the way in which Wayne’s version of Cogburn dominates the film, becoming the main character, while relegating Darby’s Mattie to a supporting role. Part of this effect no doubt occurs because Wayne is such a dominating screen presence, which completely overshadows Darby’s performance, which is perfectly creditable but not exceptionable enough to challenge the dominance of an actor with the screen presence of Wayne. But much of this effect is clearly intentional: the film (partly for marketing reasons) was intended to be a vehicle for Wayne and it is designed to put his character front and center.

Jeff Bridges does a very fine job as Cogburn in the Coens’ film, though his casting adds a bit of Coenesque self-referentiality. However, it is to Bridges’ credit that, once the film gets underway, we almost entirely forget that he was once the Dude, a character Wayne could have (and would have) never played, and who is the virtual cinematic opposite of Cogburn. Though missing an eye and stipulated to be a bit too fond of the drink, Wayne’s character quickly resolves into the type of character Wayne was known for playing. Bridges’ version of Cogburn, on the other hand, seems much more like the extremely compromised figure that we meet in the novel. At the same time, Bridges plays the character with a slight twinkle in his one eye[16], making the character far more fun than Wayne’s version had been, adding a performative element not available to the medium of the novel, but very much in keeping with the often wry tone of the novel.

If Wayne had a talent for dominating films, Bridges has a talent for not dominating films and for generously sharing the screen with his fellow actors. And here he has some impressive fellow actors with whom to share. Darby’s Mattie seems tomboyish, as Mattie does in the novel, but Hailee Steinfeld’s Mattie in the Coens’ film seems far more formidable—as does the Mattie of the novel. Steinfeld’s Oscar-nominated no-nonsense performance holds its own with Bridges’ quite nicely and she is ultimately able to emerge as the central character of the film, partly due to the existence of the coda and to a frame provided by voiceover narration from the future Mattie, but partly due to the effectiveness of Steinfeld’s strong performance. Steinfeld conveys the nineteenth-century language of the film flawlessly, while also doing a much better job than Darby had of bringing to life certain aspects of Mattie’s character (such as her stern religiosity, reinforced by the use of nineteenth-century gospel music on the soundtrack) that are significantly de-emphasized in the 1969 film. That Steinfeld was nominated for an Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role (while Bridges was nominated for an Oscar for Best Performance by an Actor in a Lead Role) does not reflect the realities of the film so much as the fact that Steinfeld had been only thirteen years old at the time she filmed her role, which led to her inappropriate knee-jerk categorization as a supporting player. If one thinks back to the performance of Scarlett Johansson in The Man Who Wasn’t There, it would appear that discovering brilliant teenage actresses needs to be added to the list of the Coens’ many talents.

Speaking of supporting players, if Steinfeld and Bridges compare quite favorably with Darby and Wayne as vehicles for conveying Portis’s narrative, the supporting actors in the Coens’ film are altogether more interesting as well. This is quite a feat, given that the supporting players in Hathaway’s film include such important actors as Jeff Corey (who plays Chaney), Dennis Hopper (in a minor role as an outlaw named “Moon”), and Robert Duvall (who plays “Lucky” Ned Pepper, the leader of the outlaw band to which both Chaney and Moon belong). In the Coens’ film, on the other hand, Pepper is played by Barry Pepper, which seems like a sort of casting in-joke, though it is made funnier by the fact that Pepper goes through the entire film doing a spot-on imitation of Duvall’s distinctive voice—even if Pepper has said in interviews that he had no intention of mimicking Duvall and did not even know, initially, that Duvall had been in the first film. Pepper’s performance is itself perfectly fine (every bit as good as Duvall’s) but it is made more enjoyable by the obvious element of postmodern mimicry in the performance, intentional or not. The fine Irish actor Domhnall Gleason, on the other hand, is much more effectively naturalistic in the role of Moon than is Hopper, who overacts in the part for all he is worth.

The Coens’ film has a particularly big edge over Hathaway’s in the casting of Chaney. Corey was a fine veteran actor, and he acquits himself very well in the role, but he was also in his mid-50s at the time, while Chaney is specified in the novel to be in his mid-20s. Corey’s version of the character seems very unlike the one in the book in almost every way, seeming more like a broken-down loser, a pathetic minor criminal defeated by life, than like the crafty criminal created by Portis. The Coens’ Chaney appears much younger than Corey’s version (though the actor who played the part, in his early forties, was still somewhat older than the character in the book). For Coen fans, though, the fact that this actor is Josh Brolin surely adds some Coenesque enjoyment to the film, especially as True Grit comes only three years after Brolin’s breakthrough performance in No Country for Old Men. It’s a bit of intrusive casting, and (for me at least) it is as difficult to forget that the Coens’ Chaney is Brolin as it is to forget that Hathaway’s Cogburn is Wayne, possibly because he is not in the film long enough to overcome the original frisson of recognition when he first appears in the film.[17] Yet Brolin’s performance is extremely effective, adding a great deal of energy to the latter stages of the film. It also makes Chaney’s character much more like the formidable, perhaps psychopathic, criminal who is found in the novel.

Tom The Dancing Bug Blog: True Grit: The Inversion of a Coen Brothers Movie

Perhaps the biggest difference in characterization between the two films resides in the different performances of the character of LaBoeuf, the Texas Ranger who joins Mattie and Cogburn in their quest to track down Chaney. In the 1969 film, the role is played by then-popular singing star Glen Campbell, whose acting career never amounted to much,[18] though he did win an Oscar nomination for his performance of the film’s opening title song. Campbell never seems comfortable on-screen as an actor, though his awkward performance gives LaBoeuf a certain goofiness that makes him work fairly well as a foil for Wayne’s Cogburn. LaBoeuf is also redeemed to a certain extent in the 1969 film when he dies after saving Cogburn and Mattie. In the Coens’ film, LaBoeuf is played by Matt Damon, an A-list star in his own right and a far more accomplished film actor than was Campbell. This LaBoeuf also helps save Cogburn and Mattie but survives (as does the character in the novel), while the fact that Damon can hold his own with Bridges as an actor helps to decenter the Coens’ film from the focus on Cogburn in the 1969 film. Damon’s enactment of LaBoeuf as a pompous, preening braggard is also inherently interesting and much more in line with the portrayal of this character in the novel. The Coens’ film, in fact, improves on this aspect of LaBoeuf’s character, both through Damon’s performance and through the addition of lines such as Mattie’s initial reaction the first time she sees LaBoeuf when she awakes to find him sitting in her room. He clearly expects her to be impressed by his masculine swagger; she simply responds to his presence by expressing surprise, noting that it is rare to encounter rodeo clowns back where she is from.

As they had already done in No Country for Old Men, the Coens, in True Grit, prove themselves to be master adaptors from novel to film, maintaining all of the important elements of Portis’s original novel but not attempting a slavish faithfulness that would make it impossible to take advantage of the resources they have as filmmakers. These resources include both those that are inherent to film as a genre (as when they enrich the story with visuals and sound, especially music) and those that are unique to the Coens (such as the casting of actors such as Bridges and Brolin, who are already well known for their performances in other films by the Coens). The Coens also draw upon the inherent advantages of film as a medium by eliciting fine performances, not only from Bridges and Brolin, but also from other actors, including Damon and Pepper, but especially including newcomer Steinfeld, who has since moved into a successful career in both film and music.[19] Then again, given the track record of the brothers by this time, their ability to get the most out of their medium certainly comes as no surprise.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: Dismantling the Mythology of the Western (or Not)

No Country for Old Men (2007) is one of the most respected neo-Westerns of all time, while True Grit (2010) is a re-imagining of a classic John Wayne Western that is, if anything, an improvement upon the original. The Coen Brothers’ credentials as makers of Westerns were thus well established long before the making of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, while their love for and understanding of the genre had been amply demonstrated. At the same time, both of their earlier Westerns differ somewhat from the kinds of quirkily self-conscious films we have come to expect from the brothers. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, however, is classic Coens, a far more openly spoofy, postmodern play with the Western genre than we had seen in their two previous Westerns—though the Western that is being made within Hail, Caesar! tends in this direction as well. What is perhaps most remarkable about Buster Scruggs, though, is that it also manages to be quite an effective Western (or series of Westerns) in its own right, despite its irreverent approach to the genre.

Buster Scruggs shows a deep fondness for the Western genre and its well-established tropes, while at the same time treating these tropes with a playful exuberance. This play, though, is more than a matter of innocent fun, because the Western and its tropes, as Richard Slotkin and others have so amply demonstrated, carry with them so much symbolic weight. In particular, the mythology of the Western is an integral part of the mythology of the United States, and the genre is often seen to allegorize the national narrative of the United States as a nation born in battle against savage foes and harsh conditions, emerging virtuous and triumphant, made stronger by hardship and more virtuous by struggle.

Though many aspects of Buster Scruggs immediately identify it as a Coen Brothers film, it is nevertheless a departure for the Coens in a number of ways, most of which identify it as a declaredly postmodern work. The most obvious of these is the fact that the film was made for the Netflix streaming platform, rather than for theatrical release, though it premiered at the Venice Film Festival (where it won the award for best screenplay) and saw a brief theatrical release in order to qualify for the Academy Awards (where it received a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay). In addition, Ballad was the first film by the Coens to be shot on digital video, rather than film, though it was shot by French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who had earlier shot the Coens’ segment of Paris je t’aime (2006), as well as Inside Llewyn Davis, for which he received his fourth Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography. Thus, both the distribution method and the recording medium for Ballad were next generation movements beyond traditional film and toward a more clearly postmodern cultural milieu.

The very structure of Buster Scruggs makes it clear that this film is not going to be your typical Western. It is, after all, not one long film, but six shorter ones of varying length, suggesting a postmodern fragmentation of the narrative, but also suggesting a challenge to the frequent vision of the Western as an epic story of ultimate greatness. The different segments nicely reinforce one another, though, allowing the Coens to explore stories that might not have worked as full-length films. Moreover, this challenge is made even stronger when one takes a closer look at just how this collection of narratives is presented.

Buster Scruggs is framed as an adaptation of a book of stories, published in 1873 by Mike Zoss & Sons. As Koresky notes, among other things, this conceit points toward the way in which the Coens here have rejected the high-minded political seriousness of most revisionist Westerns and have instead “excavated the concept of the dime-store pulp Western, those paperbacks that hearken back more than 150 years” (37). Meanwhile, anyone familiar with the work of the Coens will immediately recognize this book as a ruse and as a reference to the Coens’ own production company, recalling the similar inserted reference to Mike Zoss in No Country for Old Men. This time, however, the Zoss reference is even more playful and irreverent, as can immediately be seen by a close inspection of the dedication of the book, which is shown briefly on-screen:

TO GAYLORD GILPIN

Who shared with us these stories

And many more alike, one night

In camp above the Roaring Fork

’Til approach of morn stained the sky

And our esteem for him stained our trousers

This Book Be Dedicated

I have not been able to identify “Gaylord Gilpin” unequivocally, though Mickens suggests that this name is probably a reference to Gaylord DuBois, a hugely prolific writer of comic strips, comic books, and juvenile adventure novels from the 1940s to the 1970s. DuBois was particularly known for his work in the Western, though he is not a writer who has ever received a great deal of critical respect. If, then, the Coens are indeed referring to DuBois in this mock dedication, the implication would seem to be that Buster Scruggs is not going to have particularly lofty pretensions. In any case, what is probably more important than the identity of Gilpin is the texture of this dedication, in which the “authors” of the book (who are never identified) suggest that their stories were inspired by campfire tales told to them by Gilpin, tales that were so riveting that the authors soiled their trousers rather than leave the campfire and interrupt the storytelling process.

Two of the stories in this mock book have sources in actual stories; the segment “All Gold Canyon” is based fairly directly on a 1905 story of the same title by Jack London, while “The Girl Who Got Rattled” is based fairly loosely (and somewhat subversively) on a 1901 story of the same title by Stewart Edward White[20]. These sources presumably account for the fact that Buster Scruggs was nominated in the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar category, rather than the Best Original Screenplay category. On the other hand, it is amusing to consider the possibility that the Oscar committee was playing along with the conceit that the film was based on collection of stories from 1873—and even more amusing to consider the possibility that they took the Coens’ attribution of the film to that source at face value and believed the 1873 book to be a real one.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”

The first segment of the film, which is also entitled “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” tells the story of the legendary gunfighter Buster Scruggs, who also happens to be a singing cowboy, so that this segment takes on both the real-world mythology of the gunfighter and the Hollywood mythology (promulgated by such figures as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers) of the cowboy who tends to burst into song in the midst of his various exploits. The segment begins as Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) rides his trusty horse through a majestic Western landscape that might have come straight out of a John Ford movie. Indeed, this opening sequence foregrounds that landscape, thus establishing a dialogue with all those Western films (including Ford’s) in which the landscape plays a crucial role. It’s a beautiful landscape, but an arid one, which makes it appropriate that it is introduced as we hear someone singing Bob Nolan’s 1936 Western standard “Cool Water,” one of the most widely recognizable of all Western songs. (It was voted the 3rd greatest Western song of all time by members of the Western Writers of America.) It’s a song about a man struggling through the desert on his trusty mule Dan, hoping to find water before they both perish, meanwhile being tormented by mirages that bring false hope. It’s a sad, poignant song, and the implication is clearly that the man and the mule are not likely to make it through the desert alive.

This rather somber beginning features a tiny figure of a rider off in the distance, barely visible on the screen. Then, a quick cut to a close-up reveals that the rider is, in fact, singing the song while playing a guitar atop his trusty steed (also named Dan). That rider is Buster Scruggs himself, and the inherently comic look of Nelson in his over-sized white cowboy hat immediately calls into question whether this opening scene is going to be so serious, after all, despite the lyrics of the song. Then, a close-up of Nelson’s hand strumming the guitar is immediately followed by a reverse shot in which we see that same strumming hand, but this time from inside the guitar. It’s a blatantly self-reflexive move that calls attention to itself in ways that further undermine any notion that this was going to be a serious scene. Meanwhile, Nelson’s voice is amusingly accompanied by its own echoes, the artificiality of which potentially calls attention to the artificiality of the singing cowboy motif in general.

Then, the scene becomes even more self-referential as Scruggs pulls Dan to a halt and speaks directly into the camera, breaking the fourth wall by addressing the audience. Among other things, Scruggs launches into a disquisition on his various nicknames (which will become a comic motif that runs throughout the segment), such as the “San Saba Songbird.” Then, pulling out a poster that declares him to be “WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE,” Scruggs complains about the nickname attributed to him on the poster: “The Misanthrope.” “I don’t hate my fellow man,” he declares. “Even when he’s tiresome, and surly, and tries to cheat at poker.”[21]

Wanted posters and nicknames are central parts of the iconography of the Western, and by this time it is clear that this segment is going to spoof as many elements of that iconography as it possibly can. Scruggs then heads for a remote cantina, where he hopes to find a card game. He then enters the cantina, another iconic Western setting, finding it filled with tough-looking outlaws who differ dramatically in looks from the slight, white-clad Scruggs. A confrontation ensues and Scruggs, in what is clearly meant to be a comic parody of Western gunfight scenes, shoots down the whole lot of them, then nonchalantly goes back to his horse and on his way to the nearby town of Frenchman’s Gulch. He heads straight for the crowded saloon and moseys inside, only to find that he is required to check his firearms at the door. He joins a poker game (another standard Western moment), then quickly gets into an altercation with a large tough, Çurly (pronounced “Surly”) Joe (Clancy Brown).  Joe, it turns out, is carrying a sidearm, despite the rules of the establishment, and Scruggs (in one of the film’s highlights of preposterous comic violence) manages to cause his antagonist to shoot himself repeatedly in the face. Scruggs then celebrates his accomplishment by leading the whole saloon in a sing-along that features lines (referring to Joe) such as “Humankind he frowned upon / But now his face is gone / Guess your frowning days are done / Oh, Çurly Joe.” Back out in the dusty street, Scruggs also shoots down Joe’s brother (played by Danny McCarthy) in a gunfight (involving a final, fatal trick shot with a mirror after having used most of his bullets to shoot off the fingers and thumb of the brother’s shooting hand). What goes around comes around in the world of gunfighting, though, and Scruggs himself will subsequently be shot down (in another classic Western staple) by “The Kid” (Willie Watson), a rival musical cowboy hoping to make his reputation by out gunning (and out singing) down the notorious Scruggs. Scruggs’ spirit then ascends skyward on angel’s wings with harp in hand, his various killings apparently being no detriment to his salvation as he sings a duet with his killer on his way to heaven.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is probably the most preposterous parodic send-up of the conventions of the Western since Mel Brooks’s classic Blazing Saddles (1974). And yet, this segment is a veritable bloodbath, reaching a level of bloodshed and mayhem seldom seen in conventional Westerns and easily matching the violence of No Country for Old Men or any Quentin Tarantino film. One might, of course, argue that the violence of the first segment of Buster Scruggs is cartoonish, that it is not a representation of violence in the real world but a lampoon of the violence that drives the conventional Western. The critic Matt Zoller Zeitz, who often writes for the Roger Ebert.com film review site, reacted to the first segment of Buster Scruggs in a series of tweets, noting its parodic deconstruction of the mythology of the Western: “Buster Scruggs is a perfect illustration of the contradiction between myth and reality, making technically astonishing shots, but often sadistic ones, often against opponents who pose no real threat to his prowess. And contrary to what he claims, he does shoot people in the back.” Moreover, in another tweet, Zeitz sees a further potential allegorical reading of the Buster Scruggs character as a commentary on American military interventionism: “Buster is also (incidentally) US military policy, seeking out and often escalating threats in order to demonstrate his awesome killing prowess, then retroactively justifying it, even singing his own songs of glory and goodness.”

Zeitz’s point is an interesting one, though it should also be noted that the Coens are not typically openly political in their filmmaking, so it is a bit difficult to believe that they consciously intendedthis reading, even though one is certainly free to see meanings in the film beyond the intentions of the filmmakers. And this is especially the case with a film that undercuts the mythology of the conventional Western to the extent that Buster Scruggs does. At the same time, this first segment is so avowedly silly that it is a bit difficult to read any genuinely serious meaning into it other than its obvious project of pointing out how artificial and formulaic (yet still fun) the Western genre can often be.

“Near Algodones”

Other segments of the film engage in a significantly more serious dialogue with the conventions of the Western, though the second segment, “Near Algodones,” is almost as silly as the first, even if it is a bit more subtle. This segment is built around two additional staples of the Western genre: the bank robbery and the hanging. Here, James Franco stars as the nameless outlaw (identified in the film’s credits as “Cowboy,” a somewhat more realistic (and less loquacious) figure than Buster Scruggs, his namelessness perhaps suggesting a reference to the kind of Western character represented by “The Man with No Name,” the antihero famously played by Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy” of Spaghetti Western films: A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).

This segment begins as Franco’s Cowboy, wearing a classic Western duster, stands beside his horse and eyes the bank in question. It’s an almost classic Western scene—except for the somewhat odd detail that the bank appears to be a lone building in the middle of nowhere, with no other buildings in sight. The only other structure in sight is a water well—and that one bears a sign reading “Bad Water.” The Cowboy strides into the bank, spurs jangling, and is clearly surprised to find it so “fancy” inside. The bank is manned by a lone teller, played by Coen Brothers regular Stephen Root, an actor whose presence in the scene already announces that comedy is likely to ensue.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the robbery goes comically wrong, though it is a bit of a surprise when Root’s teller defeats the Cowboy by donning a suit of armor made of pots and pans in order to ward off the robber’s bullets. Knocked unconscious by the teller, the Cowboy is convicted and sentenced to death before he even wakes up, suggesting the problematic nature of the harsh justice of the Old West. By the time he regains consciousness, the Cowboy is sitting on his horse with a rope around his neck, thus recalling the hanging scenes that have been seen so often in Westerns—including the Coens’ own True Grit. At this point, well-known Western scenes begin to converge as a band of Indian warriors attacks and massacres the hanging party, while the Cowboy struggles to keep his horse from bolting and sending him to his death. The Indians have not, however, come to rescue the Cowboy. They have simply attacked for no particular reason—as Indians are wont to do in Westerns. They then depart, leaving the helpless Cowboy still atop his horse, his hands tied behind his back and the noose still around his neck. He is eventually rescued by a passing cowherder on a cattle drive, who employs (with considerable difficulty) the frequently-seen (as in films such as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly again) expedient of shooting the rope in half, thus releasing the Cowboy from hanging. Then, it turns out (of course) that the cattle being herded have been rustled. A posse appears over the horizon, and the cowherder skedaddles, leaving the Cowboy to face the music alone. He is then convicted of rustling in a hasty sham trial—and once again ordered to be hanged. As the Cowboy awaits his final fate, another man being hanged beside him on the gallows starts to openly weep. The Cowboy nods knowingly and delivers the punch line that puts a cap on the entire segment: “First time?” The screen then goes black as the Cowboy is hooded and hanged—to the cheers of the gathered onlookers.

Except for the comic tone of this entire segment, “Near Algodones” presents a rather dark vision of life in the Old West that uses the familiar iconography of the Western to undercut the notion that the taming of the West was a noble endeavor that brought civilization, liberty, and justice for all to a previously savage frontier. For example, the lone bank in the midst of a wild landscape suggests the primacy of economic motivations in the taming of the West, while the repeated administration of mock justice suggests that the settlers of the West brought savagery, rather than defeating it. But, as is so often the case with the Coens, the real referent here is not reality, but movies—in this case, not the West, but the Western. Meanwhile, the good-natured, almost affectionate way in which the Western is lampooned in this segment tends to undermine any sense that there might be some serious political critique going on here.

“Meal Ticket”

In the next segment, however, the vignettes presented in this film continue to grow darker and more serious. This segment, “Meal Ticket,” about a traveling road show, concentrates on the motif of the need for entertainment amid the harsh conditions of the Old West. As Trimble notes, traveling shows

“were popular in the entertainment-starved West, and the good ones made a lot of money. Since the entertainers hit the mining town circuit, they found plenty of cash to pay them top dollar. Shakespearian plays were always popular, as was ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’ Sideshows, medicine shows and circuses also drew crowds. So did musical groups.”

This motif, while less prominent than singing cowboys, gunfights, bank robberies, hangings, cattle rustling, has also sometimes figured in Western films, as when a traveling theater troupe appears in Tombstone (1993). More than anything, though, the show-business motif in “Meal Ticket” comments on the role played by show business in both the building and the mythologization of the West—something that is probably best known from the historical memory of Wild West shows such as the one mounted by Buffalo Bill Cody (and something that is the central focus of Robert Altman’s 1976 revisionist Western Buffalo Bill and the Indians).

In “Meal Ticket,” Liam Neeson plays a seedy Impresario who steers his rickety wagon, drawn by a single weary horse, about the West in search of customers for his show. This show, meanwhile, involves a single performer, who theatrically recites poems and other well-known passages for the entertainment of customers who gather about the wagon, converted into a makeshift stage. To add an extra element of perverse fascination, this Artist (billed as “Professor Harrison” and played by Harry Melling) is a quadruple amputee, his limbless condition making him quite a curiosity for the crowds—as well as rendering him entirely dependent upon the Impresario.

The particular works that the Artist recites are quite telling. When we first see him perform, for example, he recites Percy Bysshe Shelley’s classic poem “Ozymandias,” which will remain the single work from which he hear him recite the most. This poem warns against human arrogance and pride by reminding us that even the greatest empires of the past have fallen, disappearing into the dust. And this poem, of course, had a particular political charge in early-nineteenth-century England, which was in the process of building a vast global empire, the greatest ever known. Shelley’s poem, then, warns his contemporary British readers that even this mighty empire is likely to perish, especially if pursued without humility or caution. There is no sign that the Artist’s listeners take this poem as a similar cautionary tale now transferred to America (then in the process of expanding its borders to reach across a continent), but it is clear that such a reading would be entirely appropriate, even as it would also run directly contrary to the mythology of the Western.

The Artist’s first performance in the segment continues as we only hear him recite brief snippets from the rest of his repertoire, including passages taken from Shakespeare or the Old Testament (King James version, of course, which sounds so Shakespearean to American ears). He also recites from American texts such as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, topping off his performances with Prospero’s farewell address from The Tempest, as the Impresario circulates through the enthralled crowd collecting donations. As the segment proceeds, however, the crowds grow less numerous and less enthralled, while donations grow more meager, and the weather grows more harsh and cold.

Then, in the final town they visit, the Artist’s performance is completely upstaged, his potential audience drawn away to a nearby performance by a chicken that can apparently do math. When the Impresario first decides to purchase the chicken to add to his show, it seems a reasonable business move. But the move takes a dark turn when the Impresario then goes on shockingly to jettison the Artist altogether (by tossing him off a bridge into a river) in favor of the chicken (which is more popular with crowds and far easier to take care of). There’s a distinctive Coenesque out-of-kilter feel to this segment, but it can hardly be described as comical. It is, in fact, bittersweet at best and almost horrifyingly tragic at worst. At the same time, it continues the deconstruction of the mythology of the Western by suggesting a narrative that is anything but one of conquest and triumph. For one thing, there is a bitter irony in the fact that the chicken surely can’t really count, so that the Impresario has obviously been conned, killing the Artist for nothing. In any case, the shift from the Artist, with his recitations of Shelley, Shakespeare, and the Bible (in its most literary version), to a fake performing chicken suggests a dumbing down of American culture in general, as it drifts toward a least common denominator level in an effort to please more customers and make bigger profits. Meanwhile, a quick visit by the Impresario to a prostitute within the segment (another common Western motif) is not gratuitous: there is a hint of prostitution that runs throughout this segment in the way various monuments of the cultural past have now been reduced to the status of cheaply-sold commodities.

“All Gold Canyon”

“All Gold Canyon,” the film’s fourth segment, shifts to still another register in telling another classic story—about the quest to find gold in the Old West. Set in a gloriously beautiful, fairy-tale-like valley, this segment thus addresses the utopian possibilities of the West, but also suggests that those possibilities were ultimately undermined because they were set aside in the interest of an all-encompassing quest for cash. This segment stars Tom Waits as the aging “Prospector,” in the film’s most widely praised performance. It begins as the Prospector (another staple Western character) approaches the valley, sending all of the animals who are peacefully enjoying its idyllic beauty scattering in fear, as if they realize that the coming of the White Man represents the coming of a deadly threat to the natural tranquility of the valley.

By this time, of course, we are not quite sure what to expect tonally, but it turns out that this segment is again relatively serious, though less tragic than “Meal Ticket.” The Prospector has come to this valley with one end in mind: he wants to find gold, convinced that there is a pocket of it on the banks of the beautiful clear brook that winds through the valley. Much of this segment simply involves the routine labor of digging one after another hole on the bank of the brook, then going deeper and deeper until the Prospector finally strikes a rich pocket of gold. Then, in another reminder of the harshness of life in the Old West, the Prospector is shot in the back by a scoundrel who has been shadowing him all along, waiting for the old man to do the hard work of locating the gold and then swooping in. However, in a surprising twist, the Prospector (having been shot clean through but not seriously hurt) turns the tables and kills his attacker. He then gathers two heavy sacks of gold, loads them onto his stout mule Lucky, and heads for town, loudly singing the 1910 song “Mother Machree,” though most aspects of this segment would suggest that it is probably set earlier than 1910. As the Prospector leaves, the animals return to the valley, now restored to peacefulness (though riddled with holes dug by the Prospector, one of which now contains a corpse). Meanwhile, the Prospector becomes the only segment protagonist in Buster Scruggs who actually survives the segment, while the emphasis in the previous segment on the quest for profits is given an environmental twist as well.

“The Girl Who Got Rattled”

“The Girl Who Got Rattled” is the fifth and longest segment of Buster Scruggs, running nearly one-third of the film. This segment begins with a boardinghouse scene (another common Western motif, seen also in the Coens’ True Grit), then quickly moves into one of the most classic of all Western plots, the story of a wagon train headed West. Such stories were, of course, central to the settling of the real West, so it is not surprising that they have been so central to the Western genre, with works such as John Ford’s classic film Wagon Master (1950) and the television series Wagon Train (1957–1965) making a major contribution to the cultural memory of wagon trains.

The central point-of-view character in this segment is one Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan), a shy and reticent young woman who is headed for Oregon with her somewhat shiftless brother Gilbert (Jefferson Mays). Gilbert hopes to start a new business enterprise in Oregon, meanwhile planning to marry Alice off to the new partner who awaits him there, thus using her as a sort of trading chip. It is clear that Gilbert has long dominated Alice and that she is accustomed to following his lead in all things. Thus, she is left unmoored when Gilbert suddenly dies of cholera (though there seem to be no other signs of the disease in the wagon train, and his symptoms seem more typical of tuberculosis). It is at this point that Alice becomes the central focus of the narrative, which thus differs strongly from the Stewart Edward White story on which it is based, where this character (there named “Miss Caldwell) is secondary and is accompanied on the trip by her rich capitalist father and her smart-aleck fiancé; the original story actually focuses on the wagon guide Alfred, who figures in the film as “Mr. Arthur” (Grainger Hines), now a mostly secondary figure. Meanwhile, the film’s other wagon guide, Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), is the main male character there, even though the character of that name plays a very minor role in the original story.

Much of the story of this segment involves Knapp’s halting efforts to propose that Alice should marry him and settle with him in Oregon. Somewhat to his surprise, she accepts his proposal, and the two seem to be developing a genuine bond. Then, the story takes a dark turn, from this point following the original story fairly closely as Arthur and Alice get separated from the main wagon train and are attacked by a band of Indians. As usual in Westerns, the Indians are pretty incompetent attackers and are driven off by Arthur. By this time, however, Alice has shot and killed herself, thinking at one point that Arthur has been killed and that she is likely to be captured and savaged by the Indians.

This ironic twist gives this story an especially tragic feel; it also seems a bit contrived, but it was not, in fact contrived by the Coens—it is derived directly from the original story. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine a classic Western wagon train film ending on such a note, which clearly undermines the triumphalist rhetoric that typically underlies the classic Western. The protagonists of classic Westerns seldom die, of course, though the revisionist Western often reverses this tendency—and Buster Scruggs is a revisionist Western, even if a highly unusual one[22]. And the ending of “The Girl Who Got Rattled” is, meanwhile, in keeping with the fates suffered by the protagonists of most of the earlier segments, who (with the exception of the surprising survival of the Prospector) all wind up dead by various means.

“The Mortal Remains”

The final segment of Buster Scruggs, “The Mortal Remains,” caps off this aspect of the film with a story that is all about death. Most of the film is spent on a stagecoach ostensibly headed West, another setting that is extremely familiar to anyone who is accustomed to watching Westerns. Indeed, a similar setting is central to Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), the film that made John Wayne a star and that is widely considered to be the founding work of the modern Western genre. Otherwise, though, the film veers into a supernatural realm that one might expect in a horror film, rather than a Western—except that supernatural Westerns have occasionally appeared, as in the case of the Eastwood vehicle High Plains Drifter (1973).

It is not, however, initially clear that the “Mortal Remains” takes place in a supernatural realm, even if the title provides a hint. At first, the stagecoach seems to be inhabited by a collection of stock figures we have seen in Westerns before. A loquacious trapper (Chelcie Ross) tells his tale of his former relationship with a Hunkpapa Sioux woman, drawing the clear disapproval of a frumpy a very proper and sanctimonious woman (Mrs. Betjeman, played by Tyne Daley), who is traveling to be reunited with her husband, from whom she has been separated for three years. The other passengers are a stereotypical mix of an Englishman (Jonjo O’Neill), an Irishman (Brendan Gleeson), and a French gambler (Saul Rubinek). We quickly learn that the Englishman and the Irishman are apparently partners, transporting the corpse of a Mr. Thorpe via the stagecoach to their destination, Fort Morgan.

The talk among the passengers is quite amusing (as when the trapper repeatedly draws the ire of Mrs. Betjeman by insisting that “people are like ferrets,” though their various ramblings tend to confuse, rather than clarify, exactly what is going on in this segment. Will they be attacked by robbers, as so often happens to stagecoaches in Westerns? Will there be another Indian attack? Eventually, Mrs. Betjeman becomes so incensed by the trapper’s disquisitions on ferrets and the Frenchman’s disquisitions on love that she starts to choke. The Frenchman attempts to get the driver to stop the coach but is told that the driver never stops on this run. Meanwhile, our look at the ominous driver and the strange sky above the coach here suggests for the first time that something beyond an ordinary stagecoach trip is going on.

At this point, the Irishman bursts into song, delivering a rendition of the traditional ballad “The Unfortunate Lad”—best known to Western fans as the basis for the cowboy version “Streets of Laredo.” An instrumental version of this song, incidentally, begins the film as it plays over the opening credits. This song in “The Mortal Remains” thus links the film’s end back to its beginning, while at the same time suggesting the way (as usual with the Coens) that music is unusually important in this film. It’s a morbid song, really, about a dying man giving instructions for his funeral and burial. In retrospect, it’s a perfect song for this trip, though we don’t know that at this point. The song brings the Englishman to tears, for which he apologizes, noting that someone in the business he and the Irishmen are in might be expected to be less sentimental. Asked what that business might be, he replies that they are “reapers”—“harvesters of souls,” suggests the Irishman—contributing another clue to the true nature of this segment.

The Englishman’s further description of their work—he distracts the individuals with whom they deal, so that the Irishman can do the “thumping”—makes them sound a bit more like conventional bounty hunters, but they are anything but conventional. The Englishman’s discourse becomes even more ominous as they suddenly arrive at Fort Morgan, and the coach comes to a sudden halt in front of a mysterious, Gothic-looking hotel. The two “reapers” wrestle Thorpe’s corpse into the hotel, and the other three passengers reluctantly follow. They step inside the hotel as the coach pulls away, going back the way it had come without unloading luggage or taking on return passengers or cargo. This is obviously a one-way trip. The travelers have reached, with no ability to resist that fate, the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns[23].

As Walters puts it, “the overall intimation of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is that individual agency is of limited consequence against nature and fate” (34). The ending of “The Mortal Remains” thus puts an appropriate cap on the entire film. As if to emphasize this fact, the segment ends as the hotel doors close, after which the book on which the film is ostensibly based closes as well. It’s a neat ending (a little too neat), though this entire segment tends to question neat endings in general. After all, these individuals are ostensibly able to continue to function as characters even after death, suggesting the way in which the Western, as evidenced in Buster Scruggs, continues to function as a viable narrative form even after the genre has been declared dead many times.

Notes


[1] Such reinscriptions of the Western in modern settings are often referred to as “neo-Westerns.”

[2] At one point in the novel, they are referred to as “Pablo’s men,” suggesting that they might be working for Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, just entering the era of his greatest power in 1980 (p. 141). There are, however, no other details in the novel to support this possibility.

[3] Peebles, p. 125.

[4] Peebles, p. 136.

[5] Slotkin, pp. 633-635.

[6] Bell is in several ways made more sympathetic in the film. In the novel, as he expresses his sense that the world has passed him buy, he grouses that the never thought he would see people on the streets of Texas towns with “green hair and bones in their noses,” a declaration that makes him seem like something of an old fogey (p. 295). The same lines recur in the film, but are placed in the mouth of another character, an old lawman with whom Bell consults in El Paso.

[7] Bradshaw, “No Country for Old Men.”

[8] Ebert, “No Country for Old Men.”

[9] This line was omitted from the theatrical release of the film.

[10] Allen, p. 26.

[11] Cormac McCarthy, p. 162.

[12] A website maintained by the National Park service relates the histories of all of those executed at Fort Smith during this period. See “Men Executed at Fort Smith.”

[13] Portis, p. 19.

[14] Portis, p. 20.

[15] This connection is central to Robert Altman’s 1976 film Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bulls History Lesson, which also portrays these shows as making a key contribution to the rise of celebrity culture in the U.S.

[16] Incidentally, Portis’s Cogburn has a ruined left eye but does not wear a patch over it. Wayne wears a patch over his left eye. Bridges also wears a patch, but over his right eye, which he has said in interviews that he simply found more comfortable, but the effect is to playfully acknowledge that the 1969 film was neither ignored altogether nor treated as authoritative.

[17] The Coens’ True Grit also features a brief voiceover from Mattie’s oft-touted lawyer, J. Noble Daggett. Though he is not listed in the credits that appear at the end of the film, many Coens fans might recognize the voice as that of Coens regular J. K. Simmons.

[18] Other than his role in True Grit, Campbell’s most important film role was as the Vietnam-vet title character of Norwood (1970), also based on a novel by Portis and also featuring Darby as a key cast member. Both True Grit and Norwood were also adapted to the screen by the same screenwriter, Marguerite Roberts, so they are sister films in multiple ways.

[19] Steinfeld’s career also provides a link between True Grit and No Country for Old Men in that she appears in a small role in Jones’s revisionist Western The Homesman (2014).

[20] See Dessem (“Read”) for a succinct account of the way the problematic original story anticipates contemporary Incel culture, thus necessitating a movement away from it in the Coens film.

[21] This motif is made funnier, of course, by the fact that the Coens themselves have often been accused of misanthropy.

[22] For a deft revision of the wagon train genre that proves it is still possible to do serious things with the form, see Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (2010).

[23] As Walters puts it, “the overall intimation of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is that individual agency is of limited consequence against nature and fate,” p. 34. The ending of “The Mortal Remains” thus puts an appropriate cap on the entire film.