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Film Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

25 November 18 words: Ashley Carter

The Coen Brothers' stunning anthology of short stories from the Old West is on Netflix now... 

Director: Joel and Ethan Coen

Starring: Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Brendan Gleeson

Running time: 132 mins

“They’re the people who are stepping up and spending money on movies that aren’t Marvel comic movies or big action franchises… which is pretty much the business of studios now,” Joel Coen recently said of Netflix in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, “We can’t argue with that.” As one half of the Coen Brothers, the writer/director/editor partnership that created the likes of The Big Lebowski, Fargo and No Country For Old Men, it must be endlessly frustrating to see even a track record of that quality be met with a closed chequebook from the major studios. However, the absolute brilliance of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the new feature length anthology Western from the duo, is perhaps the clearest example yet of the importance of Netflix in the rapidly evolving cinematic landscape. 

The Coen Brothers are a filmmaking prototype. Many have tried to emulate, but none have the ability to elegantly shift between moods as adroitly as they do, and no clearer has it ever been than with their latest project. The series of six short films tell six distinctly different tales of the Old West, presented in the form of a fireside storybook reading, with only their distinct directorial style and a series of reoccurring themes linking them together. They toy with the Western genre, at times leaning on, and then completely inverting the usual tropes, clichés and conventions that we’ve grown to expect. The message is clear: we’re not watching a series of short films set in the historical Old West, but rather the mythical. The primordial dominion of colossal acts of heroism, of feats of bravery too grand to imagine and of survival impossible to endure, all linked with an overarching theme: the reckless, malevolent, cheap reality of life in that realm. 

Above all else, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs highlights the Coen Brothers’ dexterous ability to effortlessly and organically cross genres and moods. We open with the gloriously entertaining titular story, that of Buster Scruggs. The dandyish outlaw, dressed head-to-toe in impeccable white and singing a song of faux-melancholy, addresses the audiences directly, sharing his thoughts on the nature of fame in the Old West. Arriving in a typically dusty town, the “San Saba songbird” quickly shows that his reputation as the fastest gun in the West is deserved, his cheery outward demeanour betraying his ruthless brutality with a six-shooter. With a trademark combination of humour and violence, he dispatches a grubby looking cowboy, before bursting into a song and dance number that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Hail, Caesar!. For all its jubilance and rambunctious humour, it packs a surprise ending that establishes the core theme at the heart of this dazzling anthology. 

As much as it is a film about the Old West, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a reflection on the art of storytelling itself

We then side step into Near Algodones, an ironic tale of an enigmatic outlaw (James Franco) and his frontier justice odyssey.  After his attempt to rob a bank is foiled by a teller clad in armour made from pots and pans (Stephen Root), he’s destined for the noose – only to find his execution rudely interrupted. Perhaps the simplest short of the six, and arguably the sharpest, Near Algodones could be seen as much as a comment on contemporary American social trends as it is on the arbitrary nature of justice in the Old West.

Meal Ticket, for me the most astounding and haunting film of the series, features Liam Neeson as an aging huckster travelling round small-towns with his companion, a skilled actor and orator who has no arms or legs (Harry Melling). Their symbiotic relationship opens with the suggestion of something closer, perhaps that of a father and son, as Neeson’s impresario helps care for his artist’s every need. As crowds begin to dwindle, however, we see the ugly reality that their partnership is based on profit, a notion that is driven home in its brutal conclusion. The feeble nature of cultural refinement in the Old West was a theme readily utilised in Westerns, most notably by John Ford, and perhaps most recently, in Deadwood. However, the story of a talented artist being brutally cast aside for the latest flavour of the month also rings true as a biting metaphor for a film industry that only funds “Marvel comic movies or big action franchises”.

A similar metaphor can be found in All Gold Canyon, the story of an aging gold digger whose tireless work on a claim is almost stolen at the last moment. Grizzled, gravel-voiced Tom Waits arrives at a land seemingly untouched by either indigenous natives or white settlers, where his impact is immediately noticed by the natural world that surrounds him. With his body wracked with age, but his spirits still high, he uses his inherent knowledge of the land to find the vein his instincts tell him is close by. As soon as he’s found it, he learns that a “measly skunk” has been camping on his trail, allowing him to do all the work, only to steal the fruits of his labour. Featuring this common lesson from the creative industry as a whole, All Gold Canyon is the only film in the series in which the protagonist has a somewhat favourable outcome. Whether he deserves it or not is another matter. 

A tale of innocence and experience, The Gal Who Got Rattled tells of Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan), who travels with her fiscally inept brother in a wagon train on the Oregon Trail. When her brother dies, she is left to fend for herself in a world for which she is totally unprepared. Another short that makes the most of the Western tropes with which we are familiar – romantic unions of convenience, systematic problems with land ownership, the fear of Native Americans -The Gal Who Got Rattled feels more like an abridged feature film, complete with a more comprehensive dramatic arc, a wider, more fleshed out cast of characters and a series of subplots. Featuring a stunning trademark monologue and a shocking twist in the tale, the penultimate short in the series is the longest, and arguably most accomplished. 

As much as it is a film about the Old West, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a reflection on the art of storytelling itself, something never more apparent than in the sixth short, The Mortal Remains, a stunning conclusion that brings the principle theme of the entire film to the forefront. It’s an ambiguous, macabre story of three strangers sharing an uncomfortable stagecoach journey with two mysterious figures who are self-described as “harvesters of souls”. Though never explicitly stated, one appears to be the Grim Reaper (Jonjo O’Neill) and another who seems to represent Death itself (Brendan Gleeson). Describing the process by which he distracts their victims with a story before his partner takes their lives, the flamboyant Reaper tells us, “people can’t get enough of them, like little children,” he continues, “they connect the stories to themselves I suppose, and we all love hearing about ourselves, so long as the people in the stories are us, but not us.” This poignant conclusion makes explicit what has been implicitly suggested throughout the entire film, and is inherent in the nature of storytelling itself. Whether its through humour, horror, drama, action or song, these stories about the absurdity of human life, and the inevitable presence of our own mortality that runs like a rich vein throughout them all. 

Whether it’s the shattered innocence of The Gal Who Got Rattled, the bombastic showmanship of Buster Scruggs or the cutthroat brutality of Meal Ticket, these films are about our shared human experience. Just as long as the people in the stories are us, but not us.

Did you know? The poker hand that Buster Scruggs refuses to play, two pair aces and eights, is infamously known as the "dead man's hand" as it was reportedly the hand drawn to Wild Bill Hickok before he was shot and killed.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is available on Netflix now

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