The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

buster If the movie studios no longer want to handle wonderful sketchbook exercises like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the latest effort from Joel and Ethan Coen, it’s good that Netflix is stepping up. It wasn’t very long ago that you stood a fair-to-decent chance of catching something like this in the theater, but the theater is increasingly inhospitable to the audience for something like this. Ballad is structured as an anthology of six unconnected stories “of the American frontier,” as follows:

– “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” appears to be a nod and wink to the singing-cowboy subgenre, which is about as dusty now as the American frontier, except that its titular hero (Tim Blake Nelson) is both a crack shot and a cheerful sociopath who likes to start and bloodily finish trouble wherever he goes. Despite Buster’s body count, his name only precedes him as mockery, which he enjoys silencing. This story — which, like the five that follow, is immaculately shot by Bruno Delbonnel and scored by Carter Burwell — seems to interrogate the lone gunslinger from a crazily farcical perspective. It also creates the impression that the rest of the movie will share this existentially goofy tone, which it doesn’t.

– “Near Algodones” kind of sustains a similar tone, though. It’s the narratively skimpy tale of a bank robber (James Franco) who picks the wrong bank to rob, then finds himself on the wrong end of a noose not once but twice. At this point I started to think the Coens were using the muddy, racist, violent birth of our nation as a way to comment mordantly on the human condition in general. It’s funny but not funny.

– “Meal Ticket” is a hard, pointy thing to swallow. In it, an impresario (Liam Neeson) drives from town to town, carting around a man with no arms or legs (Harry Potter’s Harry Melling, who in life has all his limbs, thus denying an actor with tetra-amelia syndrome this role) who recites poetry and famous passages from plays, speeches, and the Bible. The impresario looks at the decreasing number of coins dropped into his hat at the end of each performance. What is he to do? The story’s ruthless logic shows the Coens’ continuing love-hate relationship with the movie business. Despite considerable competition, Neeson probably does the film’s best turn.

– “All Gold Canyon,” based faithfully on a Jack London story: How has Tom Waits never been in a Coen film until now? Anyway, here he is as a prospector on the lookout for “Mr. Pocket,” a large gold deposit he suspects lies buried near a stream. For whatever reason I enjoyed this episode most freely and purely, maybe because it’s such a perfect marriage of performer and material (you should look up the London story, too).

– “The Gal Who Got Rattled” — that’s a title that seems to mock its subject but actually says a lot about the abrupt, pitiless language of the American Old West and the concepts that language struggled to describe. The gal in question (Zoe Kazan) has a hard time of it as part of a wagon train heading inexorably towards Oregon. This segment has the most old-Hollywood and thus problematic treatment of Indians As Marauding Savages, though all of that is simply to set up the sick-joke tragedy of the ending.

– “The Mortal Remains” finds the Coens visibly jealous of how much time Quentin Tarantino spent inside a moving stagecoach in The Hateful Eight. The story itself feels the most as though it unfolds inside Tarantino’s particular version of the Western, and not within the same Coen reality from which sprang their crack at True Grit. It involves big honking stereotypes (Saul Rubinek’s Frenchman may as well twirl his mustache and blurt “Aw, oui”) telling stories while trying to avoid consciousness of literal looming death. It’s also cast (Rubinek, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Chelcie Ross) pretty much like a Tarantino movie might be.

I enjoyed leafing through this volume, though my watch beckoned a couple of times. The stories that involve the least efflorescent Coen dialogue — the ones driven by stark silences or old coots talking to their mules — come off the best; they remind the viewer that the Coens excel as directors, makers of pure cinema, as well as writers. We know the Coens love words and love characters who love to hear themselves talk; that’s why the movie kicks off with, and is named after, the loquacious Buster, and ends with a mystifying enclosed-space chin-wag that feels almost like a ghost story. The meat in the middle of this sandwich, though, is the unforgiving soil, the blood spatters that warm it, and the folks who live on both. No words required.

Advertisements
Explore posts in the same categories: coens, one of the year's best, western

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: