From 1903’s The Great Train Robbery—arguably the first American action movie—until the 1950s, Westerns accounted for anywhere between 20 and 40 percent of all American-made films. In many ways, the Western was the film that built Hollywood, and its ubiquity helped shape collective cultural ideas about everything from masculinity to history to morality. We see characteristics of the traditional Wild West hero—the lonesome, gunslinging cowboy—celebrated in everyone from mob bosses to Silicon Valley CEOs. We invoke phrases like “shoot from the hip” and “quick on the draw” without a second thought. The classic era of Westerns crystalized America’s self-mythologizing as a “wild” country, tamed only by the rugged individualism of cowboys, sheriffs, and dreamers who traveled West to pan for gold, both literally and figuratively.
But the Western in 2018 is a different rodeo, shaped by hindsight and an increased diversity of perspectives. As our collective sensibilities have evolved, so have our notions of who’s the outlaw, and who’s the lawman. The Western’s central place in American consciousness has made it the perfect vehicle for modern filmmakers to flip expectations and poke holes in our national mythological fabric. The genre has long served as a national mirror—and what filmmakers and artists see in the reflection tells us something about how we live now, long after the era of the cowboy.
Joel and Ethan Coen, noted students and subverters of classic Hollywood genres, have founded their career in that hole-poking. And Westerns have occupied a special place in their filmography: No Country for Old Men and True Grit, for example. The pair is revisiting the tropes, frameworks, and archetypes of the Western with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, an anthology film of Old West tales that might be set in the 19th century, but actually tell us something about America today.
t’s high noon. Townspeople are hiding in their wood-slatted houses, peeking out the windows, peering through the dust. Two men are facing off, but all eyes are on the one wearing the white hat. Whoever is quickest to draw their pistol and pull the trigger will survive. And we know we’re supposed to root for the white hat.
It’s a classic scene, one of the indicators that a film is, indeed, a Western. In Buster Scruggs, that foundational scene is inverted by the opening segment, in which the titular character, played by Tim Blake Nelson, has a series of confrontations. He wears a white shirt and hat and maintains a jovial smile, but as the segment plays out and the bodies pile up, it becomes increasingly unclear whether we should cheer him on.
The classic Western maintains a simplistic binary: The good guy is likely a lawman with a glittering gold star pinned to his shirt, peering out from under a white brim. The bad guy is a dirty outlaw or a cruelly stereotyped, “savage” Native American. The early Western’s morality left little room for shades of gray. It also only included white men and their values: Hollywood stars like Gary Cooper, John Wayne, and Randolph Scott became icons of American masculinity.
But as America has changed, so have our heroes. By the 1960s, as social revolutions forced conversations about gender, race, politics, and morality, the Western genre was wrestling with the meaning of heroism and villainy—and how and to whom both personae were ascribed. The outlaws, bank robbers, and ruffians who used to be the villains became the protagonists in films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch. Suddenly, audiences were cheering for the man in the black hat as he kicked open the saloon doors—his motives had become as relatable as the sheriff’s.
While these “revisionist Westerns” flipped the tables on the Hollywood heroes and villains, the new antiheroes were still almost exclusively straight white men. Americans of any other identity didn’t see themselves reflected in the wide open spaces of the Western plains. But both American society and the Western kept evolving and expanding our notions of who gets to be a worthy hero. In the past couple decades, Westerns have told the stories of gay men (Brokeback Mountain), black men (The Hateful Eight), women (Meek’s Cutoff), and young girls (True Grit), among others.
In The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, we follow a robber who garners sympathy even as he terrorizes a bank teller, a single woman facing an unwelcoming existence on the frontier, and a disabled artist trying to bring Romantic poetry to the towns of the Wild West. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, like other modern Westerns, shows audiences a more inclusive interpretation of the Western hero.
he Wild West didn’t last very long. The period is typically dated from 1865, the year the Civil War ended, to 1895, when the famous outlaw John Wesley Hardin was shot dead in a saloon. But this short period of time casts a long shadow in American history.
As told by early Westerns, America was once a wild, lawless place, populated only by “savages” and bandits who murdered innocent travelers at every chance. The land was settled by quick-drawing sheriffs and heroic settlers who built civilization out of nothing. America liked to see itself as a “self-made” country filled with self-made men and women, which meant that anything that threatened that mythology had to be villainized or erased.
But as America’s self-conception changed, so did the national relationship with the proverbial sheriff. The horrors and failure of the Vietnam War in particular forced America to confront the violent, disordered nature of their presence on the global stage. The revisionist Westerns of the 1960s and 1970s responded by darkening and deepening its depictions of violence and using the Western as a vehicle to critique America’s lust for war and position as “the world’s sheriff.” Movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Joe Kidd granted equal sympathy to outlaws on the run as they did to the lawmen who pursued them.
The pendulum swung back again in the 1980s with the election of Ronald Reagan, a smiling conservative who sported a cowboy hat and proclaimed it was “morning in America.” The Cold War reinvigorated America’s Manifest Destiny sensibilities—morality was black and white again and ran parallel to the conflict between capitalism and communism. Popular Westerns of the 1980s and early 1990s, such as Wyatt Earp and Tombstone, harkened back to the pre-1960s Westerns with heroic depictions of American lawmen saving the day.
Today Americans of all backgrounds, political leanings, and ages feel unmoored. People are divided and uncertain—no one seems to have control of anything.
It’s no surprise, then, that contemporary Westerns like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs depict a dark, almost nihilistic vision of America. Its characters struggle in harsh, death-haunted worlds where nothing is stable and a killer might always be galloping around the bend—and there’s no telling what that killer might look like.
The Western genre can be interpreted as a barometer of America’s opinion about itself. Was the Wild West era when great explorers brought prosperity and order to lawless lands? Or was it the time when violent, amoral men gained massive fortunes by crushing Native American communities and driving the iconic American buffalo to extinction? Or was the Wild West, like America, a place of contradiction, simultaneously heroic and villainous? The way we depict how we act on the uniquely American canvas of the Western provides hints to the answer.
f the Western is often simplistic, morally reductive, and problematic, why do we love it so much? It has historically been unkind to women, Native Americans, people of color—even to its own heroes. It’s a bloody, dusty, and old genre. Why, in 2018, are the Coen brothers now returning to it with Buster Scruggs?
From pulp fiction to radio plays, the Western has been a booming genre in every artistic medium. And the Western as a form of entertainment was born while the country was still in the heyday of the actual Wild West. In the 1870s and 1880s, famous gunslingers like Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickok, and Calamity Jane became celebrity entertainers in traveling, fictional shows like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Wild West figures created their own entertaining mythology that often had little to do with actual history, or their real lives. The Western may be based on American history, but it became its own myth long ago.
Modern treatments of the genre have examined why we love it, even as we grow increasingly aware of its shortcomings. In Clint Eastwood’s seminal Unforgiven — a film he made to, in his words, “bury the Western” — the gunslinger English Bob travels with his own autobiographer, fabricating exploits in real time. In The Big Lebowski, the Western figure of The Stranger (played by Sam Elliott) appears seemingly out of time to comment on the oddness of the film’s modern hero and “the way the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuatin' itself down through the generations.”
With Buster Scruggs, the Coen brothers don’t pretend to represent the reality of frontier times but make clear that its stories are meant for entertainment. Its framing visual conceit establishes that its stories come from a children’s book titled The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Other Tales of the American Frontier. Every time one chapter closes, we see its final scene written on a page. Then the page turns, and a new story begins.
There’s something fundamental about the Western that allows the genre to surpass its time, place, and often-regrettable politics. It’s a genre of eternal contradictions: chaos versus order, freedom versus civilization, heroes versus villains. This allows the Old West to always comment on the present, to tell us something about how we live today. As the genre keeps expanding, growing more inclusive and nuanced, audiences and artists will keep returning to it in the 21st century and beyond.