Brothers Ethan (left) and Joel Coen
THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS B
USA (132 mi) 2018
Things have a way of escalating out here in the West.
―Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson)
Demonstrating more theatricality than usual, exhibiting a flair for the stage, the Coens have immersed themselves into a traveling Broadway theater troupe, making a series of illustrated short stories come alive onscreen. Borrowing exclusively from a storybook entitled The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Other Tales of the American Frontier, the camera scrutinizes a hard-covered picture book while a hand turns the pages to reveal six stories and illustrations contained within. While it’s a literary gesture, all the stories take place in a budding frontier of the American West, still grappling with its identity, as we examine singing gunslingers, an inept bank robber facing the end of a rope, twice, a lone gold prospector seeking his fortune in a lush and beautiful valley, an exploited thespian of the oddest sort (a damning assessment of the entertainment business), and even a wagon train romance that goes awry, ending with a grim stagecoach ride with passengers who don’t seem particularly thrilled with their destination. Each exceedingly different in tone, with death a common denominator in all of the stories, the project was begun as a collection of stories for Netflix to be shown in a six-part television series, the first of their films to be shot digitally, but once completed, edited with such economy, it’s been pared down to the size of a typical feature-length movie, so why not enjoy viewing it in a theater? While the first three are more bizarre, the final three carry more dramatic weight and are easily enjoyable. While it’s not particularly earth-shaking in terms of Coen’s originality, watching a film in this format feels similar to Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (2016), which was itself adapted from a collection of short stories, largely character-driven, each its own version of a morality play. Reminiscent of the musical numbers from their earlier film, Hail, Caesar! (2016), there’s a healthy dose of singing throughout, some staged intentionally in comic renditions for the viewers, like a kind of surreal musical theater, while others simply appear spontaneously in keeping with the character, all contributing to the overall frontier spirit that feels more than anything like bedtime stories.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Tim Blake Nelson, the “dumb as rocks” country boy in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), returns as the irrepressibly cheerful singing cowboy, a man in white, overly polite and seemingly harmless, perhaps modeled after Roy Rogers, the good guy who always wins in a fair fight, taking on a host of unscrupulous characters that he dispatches with ease, though he introduces himself singing ballads, like the old Marty Robbins favorite, Marty Robbins - Cool Water - YouTube (3:10), strumming a guitar while saddled on a horse, riding through the essence of Monument Valley, like a walk down memory lane. Narrating the saga of his own life through song, while always seen facing the camera, there’s little doubt that we are in a movie, where fables have a larger-than-life impact, spreading the word whether it holds true or not, where every event is an exaggerated adventure story about valor and heroism that ultimately prevails in this lawless outback of derelicts and outlaws, where seemingly one man is responsible for cleaning up these towns. With malice and a hint of violence creeping out of every dark corner, Buster blithely fends off all contenders with a smile, set in a cartoonish universe of prevailing good fortune, where he always gets his man, even when outnumbered. This kind of buffoonish novelty wears off, however, when a man in black known only as “The Kid” rides into town, playing a tune on his harmonica. Dazed by the dulcet tones and overconfident from his earlier encounters, Buster never knew what hit him, where his soul rising from a dead body lying on the ground tells us all we need to know, as Buster slowly rises up to heaven on angel’s wings, harmonizing in a duet with his living rival, still cheerfully singing about heading for a better place where hopefully peace prevails.
In the stark emptiness of an open plain, the use of digital cameras is never more apparent than this segment, where a lone bank sits in the middle of nowhere, seemingly the only building constructed for miles in any direction, while next to it is a well with a sign attached saying “Bad Water.” A rider on a horse (James Franco) approaches and configures the lay of the land, with he and the horse standing silently like silhouettes for a good long while, the quiet before the storm, before he decides to enter. A lone bank teller sits inside, setting the stage for extreme comic absurdity, as it’s hard to imagine any place like this ever existed except in fairy tales, as banks tend to be closer to populated areas. The thought of a teller dutifully sitting at his post all day without a single customer shoots into the mind with a smile, but here, once a cowboy steps inside, the teller can’t stop yakking, telling tall stories about how he proudly thwarted prior robbery attempts. As if he needed to be reminded of his purpose, the cowboy pulls out a gun and stages a robbery. The quick-thinking teller initiates a diversion that would stop many, but not this cowboy, who sneaks outside with a bag of money prior to being fired on before he can get to his horse, holed up under cover of the water hole as much of the money flies off in the breeze. The teller, dressed in a suit of iron pots, charges the outlaw, with bullets clanking off the iron, knocking the criminal out with a single blow to the head. When he awakes, he’s strung up to a tree atop a horse (the only tree seen for miles), hands tied behind his back with a noose around his neck, with a sheriff asking if he has any last words he’d like to say, with the cowboy incredulously unaware of how he arrived in this predicament. Like something out of a Sergio Leone flick, all hell breaks loose when they are attacked by a band of Comanches, killing the entire posse, but leaving him in the same predicament. A roving cattleman eventually sets him free, offering a renewed chance at life, but they’re quickly apprehended by the law where he’s charged with cattle rustling, soon finding himself with another noose around his neck. Sizing up the man next to him breaking down in uncontrollable tears, the cowboy doesn’t mince words. “First time?” The irony, of course, is that he’s sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t actually commit, as it was a stroke of good luck that he escaped from his real crime. The moral: crime doesn’t pay.
Eerily strange and grim, this features a traveling one-man road show, like something seen out of PINOCCHIO (1940), where the performer (Harry Melling, aka Dudley Dursley from the Harry Potter series) is little more than a caged prisoner, an actor with no arms or legs, yet whose stage presence is amazingly complex and sophisticated, doing Shakespeare readings, Bible and poetry selections, while reciting the popular Gettysburg Address. The unscrupulous man behind the scenes is the despicable owner, Liam Neeson, who dresses and feeds his artist, but they never say a solitary word to each other. Instead they are simply passengers drifting in the night, each using the other. Moving from town to town across the West, people show up mostly out of curiosity, not knowing what to expect, setting up in the middle of town, but the curiously gifted performer has the power to bring audiences to tears, with the owner passing a cup through the audience afterwards for payment. But as time goes on audiences dwindle and grow smaller, leaving the owner bitterly annoyed. Noticing a bigger crowd across the street, he discovers a trained chicken that can apparently defy the odds, with the owner deciding to invest instead in the chicken. After watching the owner practice dropping a big stone off a cliff into the river below, we have every reason to believe that is the fate of his cruelly exploited performer, brutally dispatched, upstaged by a chicken. The moral: There is simply no accounting for taste.
All Gold Canyon
Adapted from a Jack London story, this one features the most beautiful scenery, with a shaggy white-haired prospector (Tom Waits) coming across a mountainous pass with his mule, discovering a luscious green valley below with a river snaking through it, an alluring sight to behold. Freely singing “Mother Machree” to the winds, he rambles through the forest muttering to himself throughout the sequence in a way only Tom Waits can do, exhibiting signs of an isolationist, a mountain man in his element seeking his fortune, but also capturing that frontier spirit of independence and entrepreneurship, finding early signs of gold, digging multiple holes searching for that larger pocket that he believes is in the vicinity. After spending plenty of backbreaking work looking to strike it rich, he finally celebrates his find, only to be shot in the back by a man shadowing his actions, cleverly disguising the seriousness of the wound and surprising his attacker, catching him unawares. Not only is he furious that the man would shoot him in the back, but how cowardly can one man be for stealing another man’s work, while doing nothing to earn or deserve it. His cagy actions pay dividends in the end, where his hard work and perseverance pay off, extremely fortunate that the bullet passed right through without causing any internal damage, burying his attacker in the hole he dug after extracting bags of gold, showing rare optimism from the Coens, becoming one of the few to ultimately achieve the American Dream.
The Gal Who Got Rattled
The most developed sequence of the bunch, not really typical of the Coen brothers style, inspired by a Western tale from Stewart Edward White, a contemporary of Jack London’s, slowly developing, not very flashy, but using very precise language, this actually becomes the most surprising segment, especially the way the story twists at the end, which could never have been anticipated, as little dark turns occur throughout that add immense pleasure to the overall experience, where it’s nice to be able to expect the unexpected. Starting off in an ungodly boring dinner conversation, a brother and sister team of the overly twitchy Gilbert (Jefferson Mays) and the more stable and levelheaded Alice (Zoe Kazan) head out of the city to Oregon to seek their fortune, and a prospective arranged husband for Alice with a business partner (potentially, as it hasn’t really been arranged), traveling by wagon train, bringing with them their pesky dog named President Pierce, whose constant yapping is getting on the nerves of their fellow travelers. When Gilbert dies on the trail to a sudden bout of cholera, Alice has nowhere else to go, sticking with the wagon train, though she has no conceivable means of paying the boy her brother hired to help them on the journey. Bringing this problem to the two men in charge, cowpoke Billy Knapp (Bill Heck) and the grizzly old veteran wagonmaster Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines), riding partners for 15 years, they believe the agreed upon wage is basically a swindle, far more than what others receive. It turns out Gilbert never had any business sense, but Alice is still perplexed by what to do. Knapp makes her an offer that includes a marriage proposal, which will settle her debts but also provide for the future, leaving Arthur speechless, seen muttering to himself. This romance back doors into the most understated of melodramatic soap operas, with few seeing it coming. Knapp however fails in his attempt to rid the train of her dog, as it ran away before he could shoot him, thinking they will never see him again. But when Alice wanders away from the train, Mr. Arthur sets out to find her and bring her back, but is surprised at how far she wandered, finally seen hypnotically transfixed in pleasure at the dog barking at the erratic behavior of prairie dogs, popping their heads in and out of their holes. But before they can return, trouble lurks in the distance, as they are attacked by a patrol of Comanches, with Arthur handing her a gun with two bullets, with instructions to use it in the event of a dire emergency should he become incapacitated or shot dead. Heroically, Arthur proves himself a worthy adversary, fending off waves of attacks singlehanded, offering an amusing monologue while doing it, seemingly satisfied with himself, as if he’s seen it all. But he’s surprised by a rogue warrior who disguises himself, remaining hidden until the last minute, then smacking Arthur in the head with a tomahawk, lying helplessly on the ground. In the Indian’s excitement to take a scalp, he falls for a trick of his own, playing dead, with Arthur putting a bullet through his head. Retreating back to Alice, she was unaware of these surprise tactics, having taken her own life when she thought Arthur was dead. Who would have thought President Pierce would outlive both of his masters? The real dilemma, however, is Arthur didn’t know what he would say when explaining to Knapp what happened.
The Mortal Remains
Easily the most macabre of the group, the only segment not to feature a death, though the entire sequence may itself be a strange stagecoach journey into hell and eternal damnation. The first clue is that the coachman can’t stop, even when asked, riding continuously until they reach their destination. The second clue is that they are transporting a corpse on the roof of the stagecoach. But it’s the nature of the conversation that leaves this one in a state of ambiguity afterwards, with viewers wondering just what this is all about. Inside the coach are an Englishman (Jojo O’Neill) and an Irishman (Brendan Gleeson), both claiming to be bounty hunters responsible for carrying the loaded corpse up above, but what’s implied is the three passengers sitting across from them may already be dead, where they are instead harvesting dead souls, transporting them to their next destination along the way. Across from them are a lady (Tyne Daly) squeezed between two men, a Frenchman (Saul Rubenik) and a frontier trapper (Chelcie Ross). Perhaps most illuminating is the choice of songs sung by the Irishman, entitled “The Unfortunate Lad,” The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs Soundtrack - "The Unfortunate Lad ... YouTube (2:21), featuring a character cut down in his prime, similarly themed and sung to the same melody as “The Streets of Laredo,” Marty Robbins - The Streets Of Laredo - YouTube (2:50), where a dying cowboy sings his lament to another cowboy, which hardly seems fitting for the occasion. The ghastly choice of color on the passenger’s faces, however, resembles that of a morgue, where they may be sent on the route of the damned, driven into a mysterious underworld. What stands out here are the clearly distinctive personalities of the three passengers literally crying out to be heard, yet their efforts seem to be in vain, as what they have to say, so valuable in determining their own view and opinion, seems to hold so little significance to the others, literally falling on deaf ears. While they remain in a state of delusion about their plight, all thinking they are heading for a better place, delving into strains of comic absurdity arguing along the way about just what constitutes better, in the end it’s hard to argue against death. Only when they arrive at the final station does the inevitable appear to sink in, as no one wishes to depart, leaving a hint of the supernatural to conclude this most unusual film.