Ballad of Buster Scruggs, The

Reviewed By alejandroariera
Posted 11/17/18 01:00:00

"The Coen Brothers…Back in the Saddle Again"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is the perfect introduction to Ethan and Joel Coen’s filmography to anyone who has been living under a rock for the last 30 years or so and has never heard of them. Originally conceived as a series for Netflix, this anthology of six shorts set in the Old West showcases every single one of their stylistic and narrative ticks. Their misanthropic and quasi-existentialist-bordering-on-the-absurd take on the (always violent) human condition seeps out of every frame, every line of dialogue, every plot twist; so does their love for the written word and for film genre and film history. Their intent is not to deliver another revisionist take on the genre. They already did that with “No Country for Old Men” and their own adaptation of Charles Portis’ “True Grit”. They just want to make a Western on their own terms. So, yes, like in Westerns of yore, Native Americans are portrayed as savages who raid and kill white settlers, and the landscape is breathtaking. But this is also a film about the white man’s folly. So, in a way, you could argue that by placing these archetypes under a microscope and examining them, the Coens are eating their cake and having it too.

The Coens’ love for the written word, and particularly 19th Century American vernacular, manifests itself literally from the first frame, as the film opens on a hardback copy of a book bearing the film’s title and a hand opens it to reveal its Table of Contents, followed by the first of many beautiful color plates that call out a specific frame or scene of the story the film is about to bring to life. Bruno Delbonnel’s camera briefly focuses on the opening and closing sentences of each tale as it begins or ends, allowing us enough time to read them and fill in the blanks.

The opening story, the one that gives the film its title, sees the Coens operating at full “The Hudsucker Proxy” and “Raising Arizona” mode. It’s a Looney Tunes take on the old singing cowboy movies and the gunfighter legends with a dash of Busby Berkeley thrown in for good measure. Except that this Buster Scruggs (played by a very charming, funny and deadly Tim Blake Nelson) is no Gene Autry; he is a ruthless assassin who is as much in love with language as Chigurh was in “No Country for Old Men.” But whereas Javier Bardem’s hitman was taciturn and quiet, Scruggs suffers from a severe case of logorrhea. The story throws everything at you at a frantic pace, from song and dance numbers to deadly shoot-outs involving large tables, poker games, and bullet holes in 10-gallon hats, and an angelical flight to heaven.

In its depiction of the many misfortunes encountered by a hapless bank robber played by James Franco, the following story, “Near Algodones,” may not be as manic but its dark humor sets the tone for the next four. “Meal Ticket” stars Liam Neeson as grey-haired, weary theatrical impresario and Harry Meling (Harry Potter’s Dudley Dursley) as the armless and legless lone star of the impresario’s travelling show who entertains his increasingly smaller audiences with dramatized readings of Shelley, Shakespeare and the Gettysburg Address. It’s a dreary, cold, wet land this odd couple traverses as they try to make a living, a world where the old conflict between art and commerce manifests itself in the most rudimentary fashion, where the struggle between elevating these communities or catering to the lowest common denominator comes to a truly absurd and tragic end. The Coens make good use of Neeson’s craggy visage and of those sad, Irish eyes. He literally and metaphorically carries the weight of the world in his shoulders and you know, staring at that melancholic face, that something will have to give in the end.

“All Gold Canyon” sees singer-songwriter Tom Waits play a role tailormade for him: that of a prospector who arrives at a pristine mountainous landscape in search of gold. The tale opens with paradisiacal images of deers and birds minding their own business to then scamper away at the arrival of this man; it’s almost as if they were foreseeing the eventual rape of the land by larger corporations. For if the man finds gold, they will soon follow. And after days of meticulous hard work, he does find it to then the fall victim to a ruthless act of violence. But the tale, inspired by a Jack London story, has a card under its sleeve. It’s an absolute delight to watch Tom rant and rave at nature and those pockets of gold unwilling to set free their goods and at those forces that want to take away what he believes is rightfully his.

The Oregon Trail is at the heart of “The Girl Who Got Rattled”, the story of a naïve young woman by the name of Miss Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) who is forced to join this caravan of future settlers by her fiscally irresponsible brother who promised her hand to a complete stranger. Left bereft by her brother’s sudden death and in debt to her wagon driver, she seeks the counsel of the youngest of the two Wagon Masters. It’s a rather quiet tale about courtship, about negotiating a strange, new world and about yapping dogs until those pesky Native Americans show up to defend their lands from this invading horde. The courtship between Kazan’s Miss Longabaugh and Bill Heck’s gentlemanly cowboy is so beautiful, so delicate, so sweet, that the tale feels like something Jane Austen could have written had she been raised in the Old West instead of Bath, England. Which makes the denouement that much more heartbreaking and senseless.

Finally, there’s “The Mortal Remains,” John Ford’s “Stagecoach” by way of Edgar Allan Poe. Five passengers on a stagecoach heading to a mysterious destination expound about death, faith, individualism and killing, and sing some ballads (Brendan Gleeson’s performance of “The Unfortunate Lad” makes one wish the actor would record a full album of traditional Irish songs). The action is confined to the stagecoach’s interior, the dialogue claustrophobic and unsettling. It may seem an incongruous and altogether offbeat way to close the anthology but it also wraps up the Coens’ worldview in an untidy, messy and ironic ribbon. For “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a movie about death and “The Mortal Remains” takes its audiences to that final destination.

For a portmanteau film, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is pretty cohesive visually, musically and, even with its shifts in tone, thematically thanks in parts to its origins as a series. Whereas other film anthologies are undermined by its wildly diverse array of directors and crews, the Coens rely on the same team for all six tales: composer Carter Burwell, cinematographer Delbonnel and production designer Jess Gonchor, among others. You will love some tales more than others. I personally prefer the far more melancholic tales to the darkly silly ones. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” may not represent the revisionist modern take of the Western we are now used to, but most of the tales do belong to that tradition of gritty, hard-boiled almost pessimistic Westerns pioneered by Anthony Mann and Buss Boetischer.

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