by Alan Yudman
Six short movies all set in the Old West, but really THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS is about so much more.
This is a Whitman’s Sampler of Coen Brothers movies with stylistic nods to some of their previous films. The quirky characters, the slightly “off” situations that comment on society as a whole. They are all present in this film.
I don’t know how to review this other than to review each film on its own.
The movie begins with the eponymous title of the entire collection. Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) is first seen riding across the West while singing a cowboy song and explaining his life philosophy to the camera. We come to know he is not really a singer, but an infamous gunslinger. He has a bunch of aliases.. one he is partial to is the San Saba Songbird. But he pulls out a wanted poster that describes him as “The Misanthrope”, which is probably closer to the truth. Buster is an amiable, always smiling character but is deadly with a gun and you figure he’ll always come out on top. But happy endings aren’t the Coen Brothers. Nelson owns the duality of Buster’s character… the goofy singer and the amoral killer. He inhabits both without humanity, but with likability. His brutality is tempered by a sense of humor that mirrors that of FARGO or BARTON FINK.
Next up is NEAR ALGODONES which features James Franco as a bank robber who is thwarted by a teller (Stephen Root) carrying a rifle and armored with various sized pots and pans. This is the shortest of the 6 films and seemed the most easily dismissed. But there is still something going on. There is irony, humor and an acknowledgment of beauty even as death arrives that gives the story heart.
THE MEAL TICKET follows. I found this to be the darkest of the 6 movies. Liam Neeson is an Impresario who carts the limbless Artist (Harry Melling from Harry Potter) through towns around the west. Neeson sets up their mobile stage and the Artist recites Shakespeare, passages from the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address and more, to increasingly smaller audiences. Neeson comes across another act— a chicken that can do math.. The Calculating Capon.. and makes a brutal calculation of his own. Cheaper to carry a chicken around that a human being. So he buys the chicken and gets rid of the Artist. The dialog is spare. Neeson only has a few lines so most of his acting is body language and facial expressions. It is the best thing I have seen him do in years. It is great that he is challenging himself by breaking out of his aging action hero mold. The grim math of Neeson’s predicament seems to weigh on him, but he sees it as the only path.
ALL GOLD CANYON is the most cinematic of the 6. This one features the perfectly cast Tom Waits as a prospector digging in an idyllic canyon— searching for gold. He digs test holes in search of “Mr. Pocket”, the vein of gold that will make him rich. He finds it, and just at that point he is shot in the back by a claim jumper. You fear he’s dead, but he surprises his attacker and winds up on top and walks off with his treasure. This is a visually stunning film. The John Ford-like cinematography, the saturation of color even in he flecks of gold are spectacular. But it’s not just gorgeous. Waits is amazing. He is basically having a conversation with himself or the amorphous Mr. Pocket. And it is impossible to not feel it all in your gut. The film is bookended by shots of animals and fish scurrying away at Waits arrival, then returning when he leaves. Throughout, Waits sings the traditional “Mother Machree”.. it’s haunting beauty the perfect companion for this beautiful film.
Next is the longest film, THE GIRL WHO GOT RATTLED. If you liked the Coens take on TRUE GRIT, then you will love this. Zoe Kazan is Alice Longabaugh who seems to have been dragged on a manifest destiny quest to Oregon by her brother. But he dies of cholera and she is left to fend for herself. She and one of the cowboys who are guiding the wagon train she is traveling in come to an understanding when she realizes she has no money to pay the hand that is handling her wagon. Billy Knapp (the incredible Bill Heck) proposes marriage as a solution and she accepts. But she wanders off searching for her brother’s dog, President Pierce. The older cowboy, Mr. Arthur, leading the train goes after her and before they return to the wagons, they are set upon by Indians. Mr. Arthur tells her that if all looks lost to take her own life. This film goes from optimistic to tragic.. all the while mirroring the tone and language play of True Grit. This felt like the most fully realized of all the stories.
Finally is THE MORTAL REMAINS. This one features five people on a stagecoach headed to Fort Morgan. One is a frenchman (Saul Rubinek doing a ridiculous accient), the wife of a preacher (Tyne Daly), a trapper (Chelcie Ross) and two bounty hunters (Jonjo O’Neill and Brendan Gleeson). This one is all metaphor. At first they appear to really be riding toward a Fort, but the play of light outside the coach, the tone of their conversations and one very telling shot of the driver clue you in that all five seem to be headed for the afterlife. It is a great button on the movie, since all 6 deal with the deadly consequences of decisions made or not made.
Some will have issue with the way Indians are portrayed. They have no personality or story. They are merely instruments of brutal death. It’s a problem and tone deaf, but the Coens don’t seem to be concerned with political correctness.
The gimmick of the movie are the flipping pages of a book that the Coens use to transition between each story. Since this is available on Netflix, I suggest pausing when the book pages show up so you can read them. The writing is fantastic.
The whole thing put together is simply fabulous. Each film looks at mortality in a different way and comes to a similar conclusion. Despite our best efforts, death is coming for us. THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS is a feast for the eyes, the soul and the mind. That’s what makes this one of the best Coen Brothers movies.