“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”
Written and Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
In my mind, there are two types of Coen Brothers films: the deadly (physically or psychologically violent films where the stakes are sky-high), and the irreverent (the black – and sometimes not so black – comedies).
In the former category we have, as examples, “Blood Simple”, “Barton Fink”, “No Country For Old Men”, “A Serious Man”, “True Grit”, “Inside Lllewyn Davis” and my all-time favorite Coen Bros. film, “Miller’s Crossing”.
On that quirkier side? “Raising Arizona”, “Big Lebowski”, “O Brother, Where Art Thou”, “Intolerable Cruelty”, “Hail, Caesar” and my all-time favorite Coen Bros. film, “The Hudsucker Proxy”.
(Yes, I have two all-time favorite Coen Bros. films)
There are certainly common elements between the two. One could say that in the comedies, the characters find their situations to be very real. And in the dramatic films there is some abdurdly funny stuff – usually borne of the heightened style of the film’s world. But in terms of actually straddling both at the same time, I can only think of one: the brutal, yet hilarious, “Fargo”. In fact, this combination is probably why the TV show works so well (and, btw, if you miss that show during its current hiatus, check out “Patriot” on AmazonPrime).
Well, now there are two.
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”, an anthology of six short films all connected by a central theme, will both make you laugh out loud and cringe in horror. And like all their films, there will be scenes, characters or lines that will never leave you, especially as each story has its own rhythm, look, attitude and moral. The six stories touch on the mythology of the “West” and their associated archetypes:
- The Gunslinger – “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”
- The Outlaw – “Near Algodones”
- The Impresario – “Meal Ticket”
- The Prospector – “All Gold Canyon”
- The Settlers – “The Gal Who Got Rattled”
- The Stage Coach Traveller – “The Mortal Remains”
Now, it’s almost impossible to say anything about these stories without spoiling something, so, don’t worry, I won’t. But I can reveal how they each landed on me individually…in other words, which have stayed in my mind’s eye in the three weeks since I viewed the film. This way of discussing the film makes all the more sense since, as with all anthologies, each episode or story will connect with you (or not) in ways that are as varied as they are personal. For instance, for me, the irreverent pieces are clever – and sometimes laugh out loud funny. But it is the serious bits that have had more traction, especially the third and fifth chapters.
Strangely, however, I’ve noticed that another has stayed in my mind, perhaps more than the rest. Strange since as I was watching “All Gold Canyon”, starring an almost unrecognizable Tom Waits, I found it to be mildly fascinating and perhaps a bit trivial. And yet everything about it has remained present in my mind’s eye. Aided by the incredible expanse of a perfect and untouched valley, it is a very simple story told simply, with a satisfying beginning middle and end, and with emotion…even if that emotion is “wait…what?” And considering it is almost wholly without dialogue, Waits is just perfection.
Everyone’s favorite seems to be the Settlers’ chapter (“The Gal Who Got Rattled” with Zoe Kazan, Grainger Hines and Bill Heck). That’s understandable as it’s the most complete (and longest) of the six stories. It is layered, as difficult to watch as it should be given the time and place, and performed brilliantly. Grainger Hines and Bill Heck are perfectly subdued and without affect, attributes necessary to build our faith in their abilities. Zoe Kazan is better than I’ve ever seen her, but that might come down to the way the Coen’s use her. In their films, even the most passing gesture must be in service to the cinematic style. As a result, she seems to have been lifted right out of the period: strong-willed, yet terrified of the unknown – a circumstance at the heart of those early migratory settlers’ as they trekked across the western lands.
My favorite, however, is “Meal Ticket”. While not the most shocking nor violent, it is the most bizarre. But in a way that only the Coen’s can conjur. It is head-shaking, hilarious, heartbreaking and ultimately, very human. And ninety percent of that is owed to the haunting and oh so vulnerable face and voice of Harry Melling (whom you’ll remember as Dudley Dursley from the Potter films). If it were a short film on its own, I’m quite certain it would sweep live action short film awards across the globe. Just an amazing couple dozen minutes.
The other stories don’t have the heft of those already described, but are no less well-crafted. The first two, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” and “Near Algondes”, featuring Tim Blake Nelson and James Franco, respectively, are good appetizers for the more substantive protein to follow. Nelson is fantastic, as ever, and is the perfect persence for the story he wears. Franco is less successful. In fact, his is the only performance that feels forced…movie star-ish. And while the segment is almost saved by the appearance of the brilliant Stephen Root and, later on, some of the most well-lined faces of extras since “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”, it’s just not enough.
Finally, the closing chapter in the film is its most ethereal, spiritual, and, by its very nature, pedantic. Doesn’t mean it’s not a pleasure listening to the actors do their thing. I mean, it’s Saul Rubinek, Brendan Gleeson, Jonjo O’Neill, Tyne Daly and the great Chicago actor, Chelcie Ross. And, in many ways, after all the silence of the wide open plains, it’s a pleasure to hear people speaking lots of words to each other. For me, however, the chapter doesn’t add up to as much as it should have…and worse, ends with a not nearly satisfying enough wink.
From beginning to end, though, the film is a Golden Corral buffet for the eyes! Smartly, the Coen’s hired the great cinematogrpaher, Bruno Delbonnel (Oscar nominated for “Amelie”, “Darkest Hour”, “Very Long Engagement”, and “Inside Llewyn Davis”, among others), to set up his tripod out in the wilderness. I can’t tell you how gorgeous the film looks. I saw it both in a theater and at home, and while OBVIOUSLY it suffers compared to the big screen, if you have a 4K UHD set, you will be amazed at both the film’s beauty and the technology that allows a TV to look that clear. Kudos to location supervisor, S. Todd Christensen, and his staff for finding the most lush, bleak, expansive and untouched places to act as our country’s early West. And without the production design and art direction of Jess Gonchor and Chris Farmer, respectively, we’d have no old West towns, wagon trains, saloons and muddy streets…all of which are detailed to perfection.
Finally, there is Carter Burwell’s score. He made his name scoring the Coen’s earliest films (well, all of them, actually), and they have all been contextually superb (and often brilliant listening on their own). This score is no different. It is just the TEEEEENSIEST bit derivative of his earlier work. It’s one thing to have one’s own sound. It’s another to rip off one’s own work so that it becomes noticeable to those who notice such things. Nonetheless, it fits the film perfectly and I’ve enjoyed listening to it since.
The Coen’s are unique auteurs, who, by now, have a revered canon that is both long and varied. Some of their films have been utterly forgettable. Many more are fantastic films that we love and cherish. And a select couple are in the argument of the best of the best films ever made. My estimation is that “Scruggs” will endure in that middle category. However, I also believe that as time passes, like “Lebowski” and “Miller’s Crossing”, it will become more and more beloved. But don’t wait until then. Watch it now.
Written on 12/20/2018