BASED ON: The Coen Brothers Re-Imagine the West in Oscar-Nominated ‘Ballad of Buster Scruggs’

Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a USC film-school grad, does a regular feature here called BASED ON, looking at literary works adapted into TV or movies.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a film anthology written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen based on short stories written by the Coen brothers, a short story: The Gal Who Got Rattled, by Stewart Edward White and a short story: All Gold Canyon, by Jack London.

Joel and Ethan Coen mostly flew under the radar this awards season. It’s a shame, because their latest project, the Western-themed film anthology, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs stands to be the most groundbreaking of the Oscar-nominated films. To the best of my knowledge, I believe this is the first English-language anthology of short films to be nominated for Oscars: best adapted screenplay, best costume design and best original song. Wild Tales from a few years back, was also an anthology film and competed in the foreign-language category as Argentina’s submission.

As one of my complaints with Oscar-baiting films lies in the often overly long running times, Buster Scruggs arrives as the perfect antidote. That the anthology plays on the streaming service Netflix, also shows that short film content has a place: watch one of the shorts ranging from 17 to 37 minutes over a lunch break, and over a week’s time, a viewer consumes some top-flight entertainment.

I can also say that with an octogenarian father in the early stages of dementia, the anthology format serves an overlooked demographic that would otherwise get lost in the storytelling of the longer feature format.

Four of the six short films were originally short stories written by the Coen brothers over the course of nearly two decades. As I couldn’t find the originals anywhere, I’ll presume the writer-directors were faithful to their own material. Every story entertains for sure, yet, as I’ve often claimed, the Coen brothers operating as the most (albeit subtly) religiously alert filmmakers, each tale offers some critique of the American experiment that transcends hobbyhorse political stances.

Questioning the obsession with firearms in the opening, titular short segment challenges right-wing America. Leftists likewise may feel needled with the points made in some of the intermediate stories. Indians were indeed as brutal to the white settlers (and other tribes) as these others were to them. A multiple-amputee character in the anthology’s best story is depicted with dignity and value, even with the underlying tension of his friend considering administering some Old West version of euthanasia.

The Coens adapt two other tales from turn-of-the-last century authors. They examine the limitations on individual liberty in Stewart Edward White’s The Gal Who Got Rattled, originally published in The Century Magazine (1901). A pioneer woman, after a week’s worth of wagon train travel, desires only a moment of solitude in the vast plains. Leaving the security of the circled wagons brings about its perils — her short-lived emancipation is interrupted with unsympathetic Sioux warriors appearing on the horizon. The Coens remain faithful to the story, while fleshing out the characterization of the Indian tribes. In the culminating battle scene, the Sioux appear better coordinated and bolder than the bumbling men Edward White originally depicted.

The two filmmaking brothers stay even truer to Jack London’s All Gold Canyon (1906). London writes the landscapes of the West with a heavily detailed style reminiscent of a Frederick Remington painting. The film’s cinematography captures these panoramas beautifully, leaving me wishing I had watched this on IMAX and not my laptop. Amidst this beauty, however, resides a dark tale of unbridled capitalism: a tragic gold rush between two competitors. The six stories intermix both glory and adventure with sorrow and brutality, lying bare, the good, the bad and the ugly of our nation’s untamed beginnings.

Image: Netflix

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