Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Stars: Zoe Kazan, Tom Waits, Liam Neeson
The Coen Brothers have made Westerns before, and more than just the two ‘obvious ones’; the Texan noir of No Country For Old Men and their adventurous remake of True Grit. In truth the West has scored through much of their cinema which is resplendent with mythic characters and wild lawlessness. The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs – arriving straight-to-Netflix – is the purest distillation of these sensibilities to date. It is a portmanteau film that tells six separate stories, across the span of which much of the American experience is covered.
It is their longest film, running to 132 minutes, and was initially mooted to be a TV series (hence Netflix’s involvement). Collapsing the material into these disparate vignettes seems a wise choice on viewing. Most have what you might call a ‘downbeat’ ending, and if expanded to an hour a piece might not have fared as well. Still, as with most anthology films, there comes a sense of recurring frustration. Time spent in these small worlds is either too little or not enough.
Each part comes with a signature actor in the lead. For the titular “The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs” we have Tim Blake Nelson, perhaps most fondly remembered still for his part in the Coens’ O Brother Where Art Thou? That film is a good touchstone for his story, which is the most comedic of the six presented, deploying slapstick and musical theatricality before reaching the sting in the tale. Next up, in short order, is James Franco in “Near Algodones” in which the divisive leading man plays a bank robber who comes up against Stephen Root’s industrious teller. It’s the tallest of tall tales, and perfectly fine, but ultimately comes to feel like a short in service of a (admittedly good) punchline.
“Meal Ticket” is the darkest of the six, featuring a near silent Liam Neeson as a travelling man who exhibits a well-versed quadriplegic whose eloquent verse captures audiences for the smallest of change. By this point the film’s cumulative body count has been stacked high, tipping the viewer to the morbid strain of humour Buster Scruggs is capable of. This section of the film pries damningly into the capitalist bent of the American dream, crowbarring open the topic of slavery and the manipulation of the misfortunate through creative metaphor. By now it appears clear what the Coen Brothers are getting at. America’s birth was not without laws… But it may well have been without justice.
Tom Waits carries “All Gold Canyon” almost wholly by himself, and its a joy to behold. His Prospector arrives in the most verdant of valleys to pan for gold, pursuing the location of a rich “pocket” with (seemingly) only his steed, an owl and a flighty deer to observe him. Like a mole he tears up the picturesque riverside and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel works repeated miracles capturing his blight on the perfection of the land. The segment’s close sees peace return, underscoring how man interrupts the natural order of things.
The longest section follows and it is only in the aftermath that one realises how the film’s grim sense of humour remains alive and well in the title “The Gal Who Got Rattled”. Zoe Kazan plays Alice, setting out on the wagon trail for Oregon with the prospect of marriage at the end. In the main, however, her journey becomes something of a burgeoning romance with the well-meaning Billy Knapp (the superbly named Bill Heck). It is arguably the most interesting and rewarding of the sequences on offer, as the (relatively) extended running time allows for a greater development of character and understanding than found elsewhere. The Coens present frontier romance as something pragmatic, borne – in part at least – from necessity. It’s one of the least cynical things they’ve put to film… that is until the tale veers into more combative territory.
Things close on a positively spooky note with the Brendan Gleeson-starring “The Mortal Remains”. Evoking memories of the first hour of The Hateful Eight (aka the good bit), “The Mortal Remains” takes place within the claustrophobic interior of a stagecoach running ceaselessly through the night. Inside, a diverse set of characters ponder the complexity (or lack thereof) of the human condition. And while Gleeson is the scene’s biggest name, he is whole-heartedly upstaged by his travelling companions. Delbonnel adjusts the colour pallet to a mournful set of blues, suggesting a supernatural twist in the tale that the Coens leave dangling with ambiguous mirth. The book closes on The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs…
With their reticence to place works by major filmmakers in cinemas and the recklessness by which the service unapologetically buries even its finest creations, Netflix remains a curious contradiction on the changing face of filmmaking. And filmmakers have yet to work out how best to approach the platform. It has become a home for some notably poor offerings from significant voices, and just this year the likes of Duncan Jones and Jeremy Saulnier have ditched career lows on its endless streams of options. That Buster Scruggs was not initially intended to be a film makes it an outlier, but it certainly doesn’t keep company with the aforementioned failures. Indeed, within it are pieces that will sit comfortably beside the Coens’ best works. But still there is the sense of the scattershot about it.
Buster Scruggs may have the widest scope of their career (each theme aimed for is struck squarely), but the whole and the sum of its part are not the same deal. And with the tone ricocheting as fast as a bullet, it stands as their most uneven offering in a decade, even if the overall quality level doesn’t veer tremendously. Those changing colour schemes tell the tale best of all; that of all America. Diverse, contradictory, bound to violence and impossible to adequately contain.