The Myth of the Western in No Country For Old Men and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
It is no secret that classical western film paint a less than accurate depiction of early-20th century western life. The decline of the western, subsequently, marks a parallel decline of romanticism for western environments and characters; enter, then, the “neo-western,” which offers a critical glimpse into the values and characteristics of western films. No Country For Old Men and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, two films which fit within this genre, are deliberate subversions of a western narrative, both attempting to strip away the mythological elements of a traditional western story. In particular, the films represent the two distinct facets of mythological storytelling; the former represents the distribution and reception of a tale, while the latter represents the story itself which inherently manipulates and distorts the truth in service of its mythological elements. No Country For Old Men, throughout its winding narrative, abandons and conflates the heroic roles within its story, abandoning the syntactic conventions of the western genre. Indeed, the film concerns itself, more, with a nostalgia for the myth of the American west, represented semantically by The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Though it contains aesthetics and characters which, at face value, appear almost archetypically western, the film comes to a similar conclusion about the randomness and chaos in the universe as No Country For Old Men, demonstrating the reality behind the mythic tale and, in its inaccuracies, highlighting the function of mythic devices in No Country For Old Men. To establish a framework against which the mythic elements of the Coen productions can be compared, one can look to the elements of classical westerns. Among the many elements shared by this genre of film, the nature of its conflict is among the most prevalent.
Characterized most often as a conflict between cowboys and the Native Americans the heroes encounter, “the western is always set on or near a frontier, where man encounters his uncivilized double” (Altman 11). The western is a story of good against evil, civilization against savagery, and, most importantly, heroes against villains. In other words, the western myth is characterized most prominently, first of all, by binary oppositions. Additionally, the protagonist of a western story does a great deal to distinguish the genre from others; the main character of a western is, above all, a hero. Most frequently, the hero of a western myth embarks on the classic (and mythic) hero’s journey, embarking on a quest into an unfamiliar environment just as the archetypal heroes of classical Greek myths would (Winkler 524). Beyond the character’s actions, a western hero must embody certain characteristics, as well. As Rushing claims, “If he does not manifest rugged individualism in all of his crucial actions, he cannot be a hero. Yet if he does not respond to the needs of a community, typically to be saved from outside or inside evil forces, he cannot meet the ‘goodness’ requirements of a hero” (Rushing 16). According to this definition, a conflict between individuality and community is central to western storytelling and more or less defines the character of a western hero (Rushing 16). The western hero, overall, is a mythic figure, confined to the structures and characteristics of mythic storytelling.
No Country For Old Men is a vaguely “western” film. Its setting is western – though it is contemporary rather than the generally far-past environment of classical westerns, and many elements of the film feel moderately “western” in nature. To properly analyze the genre of No Country For Old Men, Rick Altman’s analysis of genre helps considerably; Altman follows a semiotic definition of genre which can be divided into semantic and syntactic elements (Altman 10). Essentially, Altman defines “semantic” analysis of a film as the straightforward “parts” of a film experience – such as the lighting, characters, setting, and basic aesthetic – while “syntactic” analysis evaluates the ways in which these “building blocks” interact and arrange, primarily encapsulating thematic similarities (Altman 10). Altman’s primary hypothesis, in this journal, is that, rather than one single approach being valid, both must be considered in a proper analysis of genre definition (Altman 11). This definition, then, may elucidate the genre identity of No Country For Old Men. The semantic elements, first, appear almost deliberately distinct from western principles, in open rebellion of convention. Music, a near ubiquitous and crucial element of western cinema, is essentially discarded in No Country For Old Men, leaving a barren soundtrack which refuses to draw attention to itself. The setting, and characters, at face value, appear to belong in a western feature yet stand in stark contrast to traditional western because of their modernity. The syntactic elements, paired with these semantics, serve only to cloud the definition more. Semantically, the characters of the film are even more muddled according to a western definition.
Chigurh, the clear antagonist of the film, “has principles, principles that transcend money or drugs or anything like that” (No Country For Old Men 1:17:00). Wells, delivering this line to the likely protagonist of the film, Moss, follows this statement with a comment on Moss’s own validity as a western hero: “Not like you. Yeah, he’s not even like me” (No Country For Old Men 1:18:00). In the very same scene, Wells delivers further judgement of Moss’s abilities: “Yeah, you’re not cut out for this. You’re just a guy who happened to find those vehicles” (No Country For Old Men 1:17:00). Moss, though frequently presented as heroic, is not a classical hero at all, his own “hero’s journey” cut short with his unsatisfying and entirely off-screen death. In fact, Moss is presented as a parallel figure to Chigurh; Moss, after serious injury, solicits a shirt from a boy he encounters crossing the border (who, in fact, inquires whether Moss was in a car accident), just as Chigurh, following a genuine car accident, solicits a shirt from a boy he encounters on the street (No Country For Old Men 1:05:30, 1:54:00). Far from the binary opposition of good and evil ubiquitous across western films, No Country For Old Men presents all of its characters as deeply flawed and immoral, holding none sacred. The true protagonist of the film, in actuality, is a participant in the story at all, but rather Sheriff Bell, who reacts to the events of the story with a repulsed hopelessness.
Through Bell, the crux of the film’s thexis is evident; No Country For Old Men is a film which is nostalgic for a past that does not exist. The framing of the narrative by Bell provides the most insight into this claim, as Bell is arguably the most intimate character with the audience; he is, after all, the only character to break the fourth wall and address the viewer directly (No Country For Old Men 00:02:00). From the outset, No Country For Old Men establishes Bell as a deeply nostalgic figure; “I always liked to hear about the old-timers,” he claims in his very first monologue, “Never missed a chance to do so. You can’t help but compare yourself to the old-timers. Can’t help but wonder how they’d have operated these times” (No Country For Old Men 00:01:00). Throughout the film, Bell addresses his contempt for the modern culture which he inhabits, instead reflecting on the virtue of the past. In this way, Bell serves as the recipient of mythological storytelling, basing his values and beliefs on stories told to him.
Reflecting on one such myth, he claims, “Some of the old-time sheriffs never even wore a gun. Folks find that hard to believe. Jim Scarborough never carried one. That’s the younger Jim. Gaston Boykins wouldn’t wear one up in Comanche County” (No Country For Old Men 00:00:50). Regardless of the truth of these statements, Bell carries a romantic notion of a better past, placing this anecdote in direct contrast to the gruesome actions and description of Chigurh. The mythic storytelling tradition, however, is one which he not only respects but also actively participates in; many scenes after recounting a story about Charlie Walser’s failed cow slaughter to Carla Jean, the sheriff is asked if the story he told was true. “Who’s Charlie Walser?” He replies. “Oh, true story, I couldn’t swear to every detail but it’s certainly true it is a story” (No Country For Old Men 01:32:00).
Bell, evidently, is unconcerned with the truthfulness of mythic storytelling, but rather appreciates the effects even deceptive stories may have. Here, he reconciles the cold and anarchic universe of No Country For Old Men with stories of order and justice: of cowboys and cattle drives. Essentially, the past that Bell finds himself nostalgic for is that of a classic, mythic western. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, unlike No Country For Old Men, is consistently permeated with a general sense of “western-ness.” The anthology film, in nearly all semantic regards, appears to be a western. It is vibrant, full of music, full of traditionally western character roles, and, most importantly, set in the same period as a classical Western likely would be. The film, in other words, is perhaps perfectly representative of the mythic environment which No Country For Old Men longs for, as it embraces western tones and aesthetics rather than actively rebelling against them.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs even embraces directly mythic imagery, as each story is introduced with the turning of a page in a book of legends. The stories unfolding are western myths, though, as the viewer soon finds out, only in a purely semantic sense. Indeed, this jarring dichotomy first appears as Scruggs, directly addressing the viewer in the same forthright manner as Bell, exposits that human nature is evil and corrupt, and that the key to happiness is to simply embrace this fact. A far cry from the type of mythic theme in No Country For Old Men’s retrospection, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs utilizes this disjunction between its semantic and syntactic elements for comedic and dramatic effect, using the classical medium to tell a distinctly contemporary Coen Brothers story. Even in the story most closely adhering to a western syntax, “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” character roles frequently shift and swap as Alice and Knapp alternate approaching each other at meals, and it is even the old Mr. Arthur, rather than the heroic, charismatic Knapp, who is ultimately charged with defending Alice from a Native American attack (one of a few that the anthology film indulges in) (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs 01:41:00).
Parallelling Bell’s inactivity, Knapp is unable to take an active role in the story, for most of the segment simply reflecting on the state of things and intermittently conversing with Alice (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs). Overall, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, though filled to the brim with semantic western elements, falls short of a western in its syntax, defying the myth of the American west. These subversions, present in both films yet representing different facets of mythological storytelling, are not novel concepts for the Coen Brothers. Indeed, the directors hold a steady fascination with several of these concepts, as their films clearly show. “The Minnesota-born brothers… have long evinced a preoccupation with the West, looking at it with an outsider’s adoration and skepticism. Themes of the American white man’s bumbling attempts at realizing his own ‘manifest destiny’ can be detected through all the Coen films we might dub Westerns…” (Koresky 37). The Coens regularly subvert the idea of the hero’s journey, propelling their “hero” into a seemingly epic quest for purpose only to reveal, as they pull away the curtain, that there is no purpose. This principle shows itself very clearly in the two films; the western hero is conventionally a figure of good, who is destined by the screenwriters to conquer evil (the mythical Other).
In Coen brothers films, the hero may be murdered off-screen with the fanfare (or lack thereof) of an inconsequential side character. Coen films are random and chaotic – borderline nihilistic – in their syntax. No Country For Old Men, despite its appearances, is a story about mythology. Its final scene, rather than an epic western showdown, is a sheriff recounting a dream he had about his father, essentially giving a shot-for-shot description of how a conventional western film may end (No Country For Old Men 01:55:30). No Country For Old Men is nostalgic for aesthetics, rather than realism; it longs for semantics without considering syntax. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, then, is an embodiment of No Country For Old Men’s idealistic past, carrying the ever-present appearance of a classical western yet reaching the same denial of conventional heroic roles. Both carrying different aspects of a mythological tale, the Coen’s film assert that nothing is sacred, nothing is perfect, and nothing is safe.
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