“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” Has the Coen Brothers Back in Top Form

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” Has the Coen Brothers Back in Top Form November 18, 2018
Tim Blake Nelson, as Buster Scruggs

Just as the Coen Brothers waste not a minute in their anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, I’ll cut right to the chase, too:  this is their best work in nearly a decade.

Even if it doesn’t reach the pinnacle of films like A Serious Man, No Country for Old Men, or Fargo, it comes darn close.  It’s also the most richly philosophical, most beautiful film I’ve seen since returning from the Toronto Film Fest two months ago.

For the 18th film they’ve written, directed, and edited, Joel and Ethan Coen demonstrate they aren’t afraid of trying new things.  Besides a festival run and a very limited theatrical release, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs went directly to Netflix two days ago.  And for their latest film, they chose the little-used anthology genre, the better to gather short tales they’ve written over the course of 25 years (plus one by Jack London).

All six stories comprising Buster Scruggs are set in the Old West, with no overlapping characters and significant variance in style and tone.  The first chapter, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” verges on cartoonish, its violence ridiculous yet graphic, its title character wearing an absurd get-up that wouldn’t have been out of place in Three Amigos.  Chapter Two (“Near Algodones”) is similarly fanciful and darkly comic, featuring James Franco as a desperate criminal and Stephen Root as the unhinged banker of an establishment Franco aims to rob.

The next three segments are progressively more realistic, culminating in the fifth chapter (“The Gal Who Got Rattled”) that feels like a slice of history, showing us a wagon train on the Oregon Trail.  It’s also the longest tale, allowing richer characterization of its two leads.  Zoe Kazan is superb as Alice Longabaugh, a young lady who must tap into stores of resilience she never knew she had, when her brother suddenly dies near the start of their journey.  Bill Heck, in his first major film role, is quite good as well, as a seasoned wagon train leader who kindly looks out for Alice.

Zoe Kazan, in “The Gal Who Got Rattled”

The final chapter (“The Mortal Remains”) then veers back into fantasy.  Almost a chamber drama, occurring within the confines of a nighttime stagecoach, it has the aura of a ghost story.  The five characters cramped inside – a self-righteous preacher’s wife, a loquacious trapper, a hedonistic Frenchman, and a pair of mysterious men transporting a corpse atop the vehicle – engage in lively debate about human nature.  As this quintet gets closer to their destination, eeriness creeps further in from the edges of their conversation, this sensation abetted by the blue-tinged, shadowy darkness and a stage driver whose face we never see.

Taken as a whole, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs shows once again that the Coen Brothers are masters of setting.  Whether the 1930s Deep South of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, 1990 L.A. in The Big Lebowski, or Fargo’s Minnesota, this has never been in doubt.  But their latest film shows a splendid capacity for nuance across each chapter.  The Old West town of the first story rightly feels like a film set, whereas the frontier towns traversed by a dramatist and his escort in the third tale feel authentically weathered.  And the wilderness locations (shot in Colorado, New Mexico, and Nebraska) come across as pristinely as intended.

These visuals are accompanied by a soundtrack that is also one of the brothers’ best.  Nearly every chapter contains some onscreen singing, a mix of originals by Americana tunesmiths Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, combined with old-timey numbers dug up by musical curator par excellence T-Bone Burnett.  This is melded perfectly with Carter Burwell’s film score, which feels one part Aaron Copeland and two parts Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The cast of Buster Scruggs is a mélange of big-name stars taking modest roles and lesser-known actors for whom this will hopefully be their big break.  In the former category, we have Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, and Brendan Gleeson.  In the latter are the aforementioned Bill Heck, Harry Melling (how far he’s advanced in his craft, since playing Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter movies!), and Jonjo O’Neill (as one of the mysterious passengers in the final tale).

For the most part, Buster Scruggs emphasizes plot over character.  As such, the dialogue is more utilitarian than usual in a Coen Brothers film, the sole exception being “The Gal Who Got Rattled” chapter.  In this section, we get a small dose of Coen’s trademarked alliteration and perseveration, as when a boarding house matron sternly, repeatedly asserts that “I don’t rent to contagious coughers.”

Within its captivating stories and eye-catching locations, in jewel-like fashion are set many of the Coen’s long-time philosophical motifs.  Fate’s unpredictability and cruelty crop up again and again in these tales, with the sudden, unexpected bursts of violence that the brothers are famous for.  (However, the fixation on people who want to profit unjustly from the hard work of others seems newer to me, and pertinent to our present era.)

I loved, too, in the dialogues between Kazan’s and Heck’s characters on the Oregon Trail, how they jointly conclude that uncertainty is the rule of life, and that a false conviction about certainty is the route of the lazy-minded.  Unaware of their self-contradiction, their conversation soon migrates to the importance of following the narrow and straight precepts of Christianity.  How the Coens skewer our mental foibles and inconsistencies!

The final chapter puts a bow on the themes of ephemerality and mortality that open and then course throughout the film.  As the stagecoach passengers debate human nature, the chattier of the two mysterious men discourses on how we’re drawn to stories that are about “us, but not us.”  We’re engrossed by chilling tales of the Grim Reaper’s arrival, yet deny that the Reaper will ever arrive for us.  That’s much like our mindset in watching a good Coen Brothers film, isn’t it?

4.5 out of 5 stars

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