The Ballad of Buster Scruggs portrays a world of shocking violence, brutality, and indifference to human life, but does that mirror reality?
I’m a big fan of both Westerns and the Cohen Brothers, so I was eager to see their latest offering on Netflix, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), an anthology of six short films set in the Wild West. The stories were filled with interesting characters and scenarios, beautiful cinematography, and of course all the Cohen Brothers’ hallmarks, but something didn’t sit right with me.
Movies about the “Wild West” are almost always violent, focusing on battles with Plains Indians and Comanches, gunfights, bank robberies, and outlaws. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs focuses on a wide variety of Western life. We see traveling showmen, a prospector, a wagon train, and a coach ride. Sudden, brutal violence and indifference to human life ties them all together. At the end, I came away feeling sad, particularly after the wagon train short.
There’s no denying life could be brutally harsh on the nineteenth century American frontier. Disease, high infant mortality, the Indian Wars, lack of advanced medical care, and an austere environment all combined to make survival challenging at best. But hundreds of thousands of people did survive, thrive, and lived out their lives on the frontier, just like any other time.