THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (2018, Joel & Ethan Coen)
Fully into their 60s, it’s fair to call the Coen Brothers old, or at least in their late period. And this is the first of their work to feel like an elder’s patient parable. No longer curious or experimenting, it feels like they’re wrapping it up, having solidified a world view and are ironing out the wrinkles as they plow forward in what may be the last decade of their remarkable output. They’ve never done an anthology of disconnected stories, though, so it’s a departure without feeling like a voice from anyone else. I’m sure future viewings (as they always do with the Coens) will unpack more delightful details, but as it stands this really is no more than the sum of its parts — so I might as well break it down and discuss it chapter by chapter… (some spoilers follow, so don’t read this if you want to go in blind)
Chapter 1: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Could have begun and ended everything, as it serves as both a summary and a culmination of Coen philosophy. Nelson is a conduit for the Coens answering their critics who call them misanthropes — they don’t hate people, as Nelson explains, they find all their immoral and incompetent behavior merely an expression of being human. In other words, it isn’t people that they hate: it’s the human condition itself. Watch any of their works from BLOOD SIMPLE to FARGO to THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE to INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS and you’ll see that attitude expressed in many beautiful and hilarious ways. (It’s notable here that during Nelson’s crowd-rallying, bar-top musical number, the Coens cut back several times to the grieving brother of Curly Joe and the gruesome sight of Joe’s corpse; it is not funny or joyous). Furthermore, this piece says that every good artist (gunslinger) reaches the end of their rope, as a better (faster) one will always come along. And they’ll take on your name, too. So your identity is tied to what you do, not who you are.
Chapter 2: Near Algodones
A bit of a rehash of Coen plots from yesteryear, notably MILLER’S CROSSING and THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE, which both involve a protagonist exonerated (or gone unpunished) for something he did, but held accountable for something he didn’t. Justice in the world of the Coens is never fair; these are just things that happen. Despite the well-worn territory, this gives Franco a chance at the perfect line-reading of the best joke in the story: “First time?” Lest the story pass without a dark, cynical twist, however, we get two needles: one is that the hood goes on a split second too late (so Franco’s final image of the girl is of her scowl, not her smile), and second is the cheering of the crowd. Never underestimate an audience’s bloodthirstiness. Is that why we’ve been treated to so much gory violence in this movie?
Chapter 3: Meal Ticket
Perhaps the bleakest segment, it’s another allegory for the film industry — Neeson is a studio exec, and when one high-brow act begins to lose its audience, he swiftly hitches himself to a low-brow one. What’s the villain in this downward slide towards idiocracy? It could be the insipid whims of the drooling (paying) masses; the greed and carelessness of the producer; the disposable value of performance; or the idea itself of the unholy destructive union of art and commerce. The kicker: we don’t even know if the chicken is going to perform.
Chapter 4: All Gold Canyon
A bit of an outlier in this anthology; there’s no audience component like the first three, nor any moments of levity. It’s a quiet, contemplative tale demonstrating the best that Delbonnel has to offer as a DP (when the Coens can’t have Deakins, their backup is pretty strong). Humans pierce a serene piece of nature, bringing violence into a peaceful meadow, prizing only greed and selfishness. But the omnipresence of the owl reminds us that humans are just one living species on a planet that will survive everything and nothing.
Chapter 5: The Gal Who Got Rattled
The longest chapter by far, but one that feels mostly like misdirection. What feels like a love story is really just an excuse for one of the leads to be a red herring. One could draw a parallel between the self-destructive, tragic ending and modern-day gun violence in America, but that seems a little glib for what is a more lyrical, poetic short film. The dialogue is sharp, period-specific, and beautifully mature, which contrasts with the harsh realities of a wagon train lifestyle. And however much or little you’re affected by the narrative, it’s hard to deny the excellence of the two performances: Kazan reaches back to her MEEK’S CUTOFF days to do some career-best work, and the much-less-well-known Bill Heck is a reserved, steady treat.
Chapter 6: The Mortal Remains
A bit of a sour way to end the proceedings; it’s almost the opposite of Chapter 5 in that it’s all metaphor with little specificity. Furthermore, the execution is, in a rare misstep for the Coens, lacking — the dialogue feels dulled and patchy, and the performances almost all misjudged. It’s all about storytelling, and how stories (movies?) can distract us in the brief moments we have while we’re alive. Sometimes they entertain, sometimes they bore, and sometimes they enlighten or make us weep. That’s all fine, but couched in this lugubrious coach ride which might as well be across The River Styx, it all feels preachy and not particularly unique.