The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs
Well, if there one A-list director (pair) who are willing to embrace the growing tide of streaming movies over traditional theatre options, I guess its the Coen Brothers, though I can’t speak to their enthusiasm. Their follow-up to Hail, Caesar! (which was itself a welcome return to form following, in my eyes, a few less than stellar projects) is a very different beast: a long-planned anthology film of six short stories, all set in the Wild West.
That genre has seen a certain kind of renaissance in recent years with the likes of Slow West in one hand and the remake of The Magnificent Seven in the other, and even fantasy/sci-fi takes in The Dark Tower. American filmmakers remain, it would seem, enamored with both the idea of the untamed west in the process of taming, and presumably with the memory of a classic age of western films. The Coen Brothers are no exception, but is The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs a decent addition to the enormous canon of the genre, or instead a wishy-washy nostalgia fueled passion project?
In “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”, a wandering misanthrope (Tim Blake Nelson) engages in gunfights while musing on humanity; in “Near Algodones”, a desperate cowboy (James Franco) robs a bank; in “Meal Ticket”, a travelling impresario (Liam Neeson) struggles with his armless, legless charge (Harry Melling); in “All Gold Canyon” a prospector (Tom Waits) searches for the precious metal; in “The Girl Who Got Rattled” a woman (Zoe Kazan) on the Oregon Trail deals with bereavement and her bleak prospects; and in “The Mortal Remains” five travelers converse on the nature of man in a travelling stage coach.
For this one, I’m going to write about each of the stories in turn before offering some thoughts on Buster Scruggs as a whole. There are indications that the Coen’s may have wanted to present these stories as separate narratives, possibly as a TV show, but they have been packaged together, and so an element of the judging needs to be together.
The opening number, also the shortest I think, is the titular tale, featuring Tim Blake Nelson’s crooning gunfighter, and his encounters with a variety of similar naer do wells (with parts for the likes of Clancy Brown and David Krumholtz). This short film has a certain similarity to the Coen’s magnum opus O Brother, Where Art Thou? with its musical themes and comically surreal progression. The difference is in the violence on display: while O Brother… was not a pacifistic film, it probably had less bloodshed in its whole running time than “The Ballad…” has in its 15 or so minutes. The blood and gore provides a suitable (and I’m sure, intentional) contrast to the singing, musing and general tomfoolery as Nelson’s Scruggs waxes lyrical in-between songs.
The effect can still be a little disconcerting all the same, and in what will be a recurring issue with the overall film, it’s hard to know what kind of point the Coen’s are trying to make. Scruggs states the apparent message of the piece fairly bluntly near the conclusion, a diatribe on how there is always someone waiting to be the next top dog, but I am afraid any depth to this message was somewhat lost among the bizarre verbal and physical comedy (my favourite being when Scruggs dusts himself off in a dingy supply station, creating a cartoonish outline of a man). Nelson is, as he always is, excellent, stepping neatly back into a singing role as he had in O Brother… and but for his strange sort of magnetism in performance “The Ballad…” might well have fallen badly flat.
James Franco’s contribution in “Near Algodones” might be the most fuzzy in terms of message, as his cowboy suffers through a succession of miserable circumstances – a botched bank robbery, a kangaroo court, a Comanche raid, an elongated hanging and so on and so forth – in another short that mixes the serious with the darkly comedic at will. But you never really connect with the cowboy in any way, perhaps due to his paucity of lines, and if anything a viewer’s interest might be more drawn to Stephen Root’s rapidly speaking bank teller, who takes down a bank robber in a rather unique fashion.
Perhaps the point of “Near Algodones” is that sometimes bad things just happen, or maybe its a grander pronouncement on the inevitability of karma, but such thoughts are grains of sand in your hands for such a short and, unfortunately, shallow narrative, one that is good for a few cheap yucks (the cowboy’s “First time?” line is probably the films best laugh) and little else besides.
The anthology moves on to the truly miserable in “Meal Ticket”. In what is a common feature for the remaining offerings, you spend the majority of its running time waiting for something terrible to happen, and not in a well crafted Hitchcockian sense. The encroaching sense of depression pervades throughout, right up to the murderous implications of its final shot.
But I can’t fault “Meal Ticket” too much, going by the strength of its performances. Neeson spends most of it deathly silent, but showcasing his incredible talent nonetheless, as this would be charity provider with much more base motivations. But is is Melling, presumably trying to put Dudley Dursley behind him with roles like this, who provides the true revelation, both in terms of his obvious talent at one-man performing, and, like Neeson, in what is portrayed silently in every other scene. The inherent grimness of the narrative can’t cloud what is being portrayed and while “Meal Ticket” will certainly not be to everyone’s taste, it is the kind of thing I would hold up as a stellar example of the actor’s craft.
“All Gold Canyon” is a similar sort of production in the limited amount of cast members, but very different otherwise. For one thing, I think it is the only one of the six stories that has anything even close to resembling a happy ending, but more than that, at a time in the production when the offerings start to balloon in time, “All Gold Canyon” is the only one where the increasing length actually fits. A treatise on the virtues of patience, it also happens to be the only story with an apparently clear message to impart.
Waits, alone on screen for the majority, gives a great performance as a grizzled old prospector carefully going about his craft in the magnificent surrounds of the titular canyon. Like the other shorts, there is a constant sense of impending doom, but here it really is more a case of expectation based on the previous three adventures, as opposed to anything “All Gold Canyon” is actively trying to instill. The story reaches a suitably dramatic finale that manages to skillfully stick to its central message and allows the Coen’s the chance to really showcase what makes them such proficient visual directors and editors.
The longest of the six shorts – or maybe it just felt like that – is “The Girl Who Got Rattled” – and it is here that the wheels very obviously come off the Buster Scruggs bus. The story of Alice and how she hits a low point on the Oregon Trail – that brings back pixelated memories – only to stumble into a period romantic drama is all well and good, but as with other shorts, only to an extreme extent here, you’re just waiting for the tragedy to occur and oh, occur it will. There’s something particularly unenjoyable about that in this instance, as any genuine interest in the story being portrayed and acted out, any attempt at crafting a connection between character and audience, is overtaken by that sense of dread and inevitable doom.
Zoe Kazan (one of only two female roles of note in all six shorts) I haven’t seen much of lately, but she is decent if reserved here, with cowboy Billy Knapp, played by Bill Heck, being a tad more interesting, a guy who has spent his whole life in the saddle and has reached the point where he can either do that till he dies or attempt to make a familial life for himself. The back and forth between the two is endearingly sweet, but, as stated, it can do nothing against the unpleasant certainty that one or both of them is going to end up dead long before any happy endings come into view. The Coen’s ladle on the Romeo & Juliet-esque tragedy hard in this one, and it gets just a bit too much by the conclusion.
The last short is “The Mortal Remains”, wherein the Coen’s attempt to get their inner Quentin Tarantino to come out and play, in a set-up and narrative that will inevitably draw attention to the opening portions of The Hateful Eight: an elongated dialogue inside a stagecoach. The point of the various musings here appears to be a commentary on the subjective nature of human experiences and human morality, running the gambit between an egalitarian philosophy of “We all need the same things”, a Christian focused moralistic perspective of “There are upright and sinful people” and a more loose “Everyone is different” view.
This is all well and good I suppose, but things move to a dark and rather bizarre place late-on, as the stagecoach ride takes on supernatural dimensions, with indications that at least some of the passengers on-board might no longer be on the mortal plane, so to speak. I feel this was the wrong path to take: if aping Tarantino, go ahead and ape him, but this sort of Twilight Zone experiment comes off as hokey and wholly unsatisfactory. The five players in this Godot-like dialogue all perform well enough, especially Jonjo O’Neill and the singing Brendan Gleeson, but there was something very unfulfilling about “The Mortal Remains” right down to its final shots of a limbo-like hotel.
Taken collectively it is a bit of an odd mix, with the general message apparently being a commentary on human nature, with the Wild West setting being little more than window dressing really. And human nature is horrible if you go by what the Coen’s depict here: we’re all just a bunch of violent, murdering, manipulating selfish backstabbers who genuinely think we would be better off shooting ourselves than have to deal with the practical consequences of manifest destiny. There isn’t anything wrong with enunciating such a negative viewpoint as a central message, but when done in this fashion, in six separate stories crammed into a two hours and change running time, it feels very oppressive.
But there is also the element of time and how it catches up with you: with the gunfighter Scruggs who knows his time at the top will come to an end eventually; with the cowboy who can’t escape the noose forever; with the impresario whose trade is with fickle audiences with short attention spans; for the prospector whose investment of time in his craft may not be to his own gain; with the frontier folk who see chances for normal lives slipping away day by day; and for those in the coach, who may have already seen all of their time expended. Nothing lasts forever, perhaps why, in “Meal Ticket”, the actor’s opening speech is Shelly’s ode to the impermanence of everything, Ozymandias. You can’t deny that the Coen’s have created a certain consistency across the board, but that doesn’t mean its still fun or thought-provoking enough to watch.
Frankly, it is difficult to stay engaged with this, most notably in the penultimate film, when the weighty musings on mortality and the human experience are presented in so miserable a fashion. Developing an attachment to characters is hard enough in a feature film, and even harder in a short, and when you realise the Coen’s are happy to GRRM their way through their principals, that crucial connection falls apart.
This mixture of satire and homage to the ideals of the pre-revisionist western fails to be as palatable as you would hope. It looks great – when have wild west films ever not recently? – and is even written with aplomb frequently enough, but it peaks way too early with Tim Blake Nelson’s gunslinging and singing, and ends on a bum note altogether. Perhaps it would have been a better exercise to release these episodes as episodes, in a TV show, when the individual focus may have allowed for elongation where it would have helped and better characterisation elsewhere. The Coen’s aren’t down and out by any means, but they need to do a lot better than this if they are to maintain their perceived place in the directorial hierarchy. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).