From the outset of their acclaimed careers, the Coen brothers have made a name for themselves by embracing a starkly cartoonish spirit, often punctuating acts of grim violence with moments of pure delight and whimsy, or vice versa. So it should come as no surprise that, brutality aside, their latest offering, the Netflix backed anthological Western The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, begins with a melodious yarn that would not feel out of place alongside the Acme-filled exploits of The Looney Tunes. With a smile on his face and a guitar in his hands, the eponymous Buster (a gleeful Tim Blake Nelson in his first rodeo with the Coens since 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?) kicks off the proceedings by breaking the fourth wall and directly addressing the audience before segueing into a humorous rendition of Bob Nolan’s “Cool Water”. As he strums and trots along, his words bounce off pristine canyon walls (not unlike those found in Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoons) and echo with exaggerated oomph as if alive with the sound of music. The cumulative effect is so playful and joyous that it hardly sets you up for the wave of nihilism and cruelty to come.
Presented as a book of short stories titled “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Other Tales of the American Frontier”, Scruggs features six chapters of bleak mythologizing that strips away any and all romantic notions of the West in favor of a chaotic world where the end is always near and mankind is almost always responsible. Each section varies wildly in tone—bouncing from the lighthearted nature of the aforementioned opening to the somber destitution of the third chapter (“Meal Ticket”) and the tender romance of part five (“The Gal Who Got Rattled”)—but the Coens never waver from their message of unpredictability and moral decay. This is perhaps best summed up by the opening lines of “When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings”, an original duet featured at the end of part one. “Let me tell you, buddy, there’s a faster gun coming over yonder when tomorrow comes,” sings The Kid (singer-songwriter Willie Watson), a young gun who challenges Buster to a duel. “Let me tell you, buddy, it won’t be long till you find yourself singing your last cowboy song.”
As with most anthologies, some of the offerings are stronger than others, though the film mostly avoids the pitfalls of the structure by progressively getting better throughout. Buster’s farcical ballad is all fun and games, of course, and the surprise ending definitely adds some emotional weight to the affair, but ultimately it’s too slight to carry the load. The same goes for “Near Algodones”, the second chapter and easily the weakest of the bunch. Not that it’s bad per se—there’s some excellent gallows humor—it’s just the only one that feels unnecessary, and believe me, it pains me to say that about something that involves a shotgun-wielding, pot-and-pan wearing Stephen Root. Perhaps if the Coens had gone through with their plan for a miniseries then James Franco’s character could have been more fleshed out, but as it stands the whole thing feels undercooked.
Then comes the brooding “Meal Ticket”, and things begin to coalesce. Starring Liam Neeson as a traveling impresario in care of a limbless orator known as Harrison the Wingless Thrush (Harry Melling), the story revolves around the increasingly dire turnout of their performances and, as you can surely guess, the difficulties of having no arms or legs. The chapter casts a dark shadow over the rest of the film, turning a lean cowboy jaunt into an understated nightmare. Neeson’s quiet performance is haunting, and Melling sells the hell out of his many monologues. The sight of Harrison by the fireplace as the impresario engages with a prostitute just a few feet away is among the most singularly depressing moments ever conceived by the Coens, and his fortunes only get worse from there. And yet at the heart of it all is a dark joke so visually pleasing you can’t help but laugh.
Chapters four and five continue the upward trajectory by putting character first. The ever-loveable Tom Waits lends his talents to what is perhaps the most endearing and perfectly structured vignette of the lot, “All Gold Canyon”, which takes place in a valley so picturesque that it evokes Disney. (As an aside: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is the first Coen brothers movie to not be shot on film and I have to say the results are mixed, with otherwise striking compositions marred by washed out colors and overtly digital imagery. Something tangible is lost by shooting a Western digitally if you ask me.) “The Gal Who Got Rattled” is the longest chapter and the most tender. A genuine sweetness forms between Zoe Kazan (co-writer of this year’s Wildlife) and Bill Heck’s characters that elevates the tale. Together these two chapters represent a warmer, gentler side of the equation…until in trademark Coen fashion, they don’t.
“The Mortal Remains” rounds out the oeuvre on a delectably sinister note, as a sort of bizarro take on Stagecoach. Steeped in gothic horror vibes, it effectively hammers home the air of death permeating the anthology. Tyne Daly (who recently starred in the indie epic A Bread Factory) provides some wonderful facial expressions, and it’s always a pleasure to see Brendan Gleeson. All in all, it’s a fitting capper for an uneven but still wildly enjoyable collection.
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