The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is the newest film by Joel & Ethan Coen. That right there should be enough to have you salivating. But if that’s not enough incentive, it’s premiering on NETFLIX. So you won’t even have to get off your butt to check it out. And if THAT’S not enough, it’s also great!
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: A Western in Six Parts
“This Will Tell the Tale.”
Much like how Fargo was “based on a true story” that never was, so too is this film, based on a book that never existed. In this case, the book in question, titled The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Other Tales of the American Frontier, serves as a framing device for the picture. We push in on this lovely green book and the pages turn on their own accord, like Disney fantasies, and open on beautifully painted illustrations which act as a palate cleanser between chapters.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The first of the tales, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” follows a white-clad Gila monster of a human named Buster Scruggs, played by Tim Blake Nelson marking his first return to the Coen Brothers filmography since O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Buster may have a sharp tongue and a pleasing voice, but he’s also the sharpest shooter in the West and won’t think twice about ending you. Behind his white duds and distressingly white teeth and pale skin, are dead black shark eyes. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a hilarious farce, closer to Intolerable Cruelty than True Grit. It is also a riot that had me cackling with glee.
The Coen’s begin their film with absurdity, but that joy drains quickly. “Near Aldogones” presents the Coen’s take on a Western Bank Robbery, featuring James Franco as a Peter Fonda-looking robber and the deliriously over the top Stephen Root as a bank teller with the strongest pots and pans on the planet (you’ll know it when you see it), as well as not one, but two hanging sequences.
“Meal Ticket”, the dourest and distressing of the tales, is the story of a carriage driver and his limbless companion (?) as they travel the land, reciting famous speeches. The story is relentlessly macabre and as the artist performs his eloquent speeches for fewer and fewer crowds, one gets the feeling that this is the Coen Brothers’ declaration on the current state of cinema. Indeed, one need only look to the carriage driver’s answer to his money problems to see what the Coen’s think of the general public.
All Gold Canyon
Next is “All Gold Canyon”, the tale of a prospector in the middle of the wilderness, mining for gold and searching for “Mr. Pocket.” Tom Waits gives a phenomenally warm performance as the ancient man whose quest for a few nuggets of gold puts all of nature on edge.
The Gal Who Got Rattled
“The Gal Who Got Rattled” is one of the longer chapters and features the wonderful Zoe Kazan as a young lady on the Oregon Trail who finds herself, in typical Coen Brother fashion, in desperate money troubles. However, the story also contains a budding love story between Kazan’s character and a surprisingly soft-hearted trail leader. This is a side of the Coen’s not seen since Marge and Norm in Fargo, and shouldn’t be overlooked. Emotional warmth and tenderness are rare in these parts.
The portrayal of Native Americans as “savages” in the story is regrettable. It may be accurate to the stories they are trying to mimic but I couldn’t help but wish they actually told a sympathetic story about an alienated people at least once instead of making them a frightening Other.
The Mortal Remains
And finally, there is “The Mortal Remains,” a chilling short about five people on a carriage that will not stop. More than any of the other tales, this one seems like a short story written for the stage, and I imagine it will be performed unofficially in colleges in a few years time. Two bounty hunters, an amiable French man, a fervourous and devout old woman, and a rambling man in a coonskin cap round out the cast. As the title suggests, this piece is about human mortality, but it’s also about our human desire to cling to a narrative. And while some might find its conclusion underwhelming (a criticism lobbed at the Coen’s A Serious Man and No Country For Old Men), I found it warm and comforting.
It is arguable that the Coen Brothers are America’s greatest filmmakers. They certainly rank among the country’s finest, alongside Kubrick, Spielberg, Scorsese, Hitchcock, Huston, and Welles. But they are, in my mind anyway, inarguably the most American filmmakers, in so much as they tell stories only Americans could tell. Why? Because unlike so many filmmakers, the Coen’s not only direct their pictures, but write them too. Like Woody Allen and Quentin Tarantino, the Coen Bros films are entirely their own. What separates them from the pack, however, is that the Coen’s deal almost exclusively in folklore, and it is that quality which they embrace so firmly in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
From Fargo’s opening titles and Norwegian folk song inspired theme, to The Big Lebowski’s mustachioed narration, to Inside Llewyn Davis’ literal folk singer protagonist, the Coen’s have been obsessed with Americana and its relationship with its heritage and its people. Put it another way, it’s folklore.
As the eponymous hero in Inside Llewyn Davis says, “if it was never new, and never gets old, then it’s a folk song.”
The Coen’s have a manner of portraying stories as though they’ve been passed down. Fargo, No Country For Old Men, The Big Lebowski, True Grit, Raising Arizona, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and The Hudsucker Proxy all contain elements of “let me tell you a tale” in their introductions. It is an endearing quality. It makes you feel like you’re sitting on your grandpappy’s knee as he regales you with stories. But its also crucial to the Coen’s ability to interweave mysticism and the fantastic and few films introduce age-old mythology into their tales so seamlessly.
Its All Just Chaos
The Coen’s entire career seems to be about understanding this world by cutting through the chaos, only to realize that the chaos is the world. Whether it is a pregnant cop trying to understand why someone would kill for money, a young girl seeking revenge for her murdered pa, a divorce attorney trying to comprehend why anyone would fall in love, a bowler trying to replace his rug, or a physician just trying to understand… anything; the Coen’s keep returning to one key theme time and time again. The quest for money, indeed the quest for any material good, combats the spirit and tethers it, uncomfortably, to terra firma. Only when we can let go of capitalism and embrace the emotional do we find one-ness, or Dude-ness.
Perhaps that is why the Coen’s respond so well to The Western. The Wild West was a lawless era, where bandits clashed with Puritans, where we tamed the untamed, and where we stitched this nation together with steel and fire and coal. It was a hard and brutal time filled with hard and brutal people. Comfort was a luxury and desperation was all too normal. And, most importantly, it was where a man could seek his fortune, a frequent motif in the Coen’s oeuvre.
The Coen’s rarely make movies about people. They make movies about Characters (with a capital C). They are less interested in reality than they are with emotional truth, which is why they are so comfortable jumping from noir to slapstick to gritty realism to farce. That is why their dramatic material is so compelling. They portray the actions in their films as truth. Something that happens. But its something that happens to vibrant, colorful people. The violence is ordinary. Their characters are extraordinary.
Last Word On The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The Coen’s latest is not going to be to everyone’s liking. Since No Country For Old Men, it has been clear that the Coen’s are less interested in giving you endings you want as they are giving endings they feel you can chew over. Buster Scruggs may bore you, but it may also enthrall and entice you. Its dialogue is sumptuous and its cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel deserves Academy recognition. It may not be ‘top tier’ Coen Bros material but that’s only because their resumé includes Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou, No Country For Old Men, A Serious Man, Raising Arizona, and Barton Fink. As I say, it may not be to everyone’s liking, but it was to mine. We get to live in a world where the Coen Brothers are making movies, and that… that’s just swell.