HOW THE WEST WAS WON (MORE OR LESS).
It was going to be the Coen brothers’ first collaboration with Netflix, a project that started out as a TV series. In the end, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs turned into a feature, their first digitally shot Western. I had no idea what to expect. It had been quite some time since I was genuinely excited about a Coen brothers movie; Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) spoke to a lot of critics, but not really me. This one was something else, and I realized that the last time I was equally happy to see a new movie from these guys was another Western, True Grit (2010). The Coens certainly know how to make that genre look alive.
Introducing us to a singing cowboy
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs consists of six tales, written by the brothers over several decades. Two of them are inspired by stories from Jack London and Stewart Edward White, two authors born in the late 1800s who wrote about an age where American adventurers found gold and new territory on their continent.
The first tale (sharing the same title as the film) introduces us to a singing cowboy (Tim Blake Nelson) in white who turns out to be the best gunslinger around; the second one, ”Near Algodones”, introduces us to a bank-robbing cowboy (James Franco); the third, ”Meal Ticket”, tells the story of an impresario (Liam Neeson) who’s traveling with a theater talent (Harry Melling) who lacks arms and legs; the fourth tale, ”All Gold Canyon”, introduces us to a curmudgeonly gold prospector (Tom Waits); the fifth, ”The Gal Who Got Rattled”, has Zoe Kazan as a young woman joining a wagon trail to Oregon; and the sixth story, ”The Mortal Remains”, offers one stagecoach, five passengers and a dark future.
Having fun with stereotypes
The stories are relatively short, with a longer fifth one; audiences will have their personal favorites, but I found them all to be hugely enjoyable in very different ways. The first one is an absurd way to start the movie, with Nelson in a hilarious turn as the singing cowboy. This is the Coen brothers having fun with a Hollywood stereotype from many old B Westerns, spicing it up with blood-spattering violence; the scene where Nelson makes Clancy Brown shoot himself in the head three times is unforgettable.
”Meal Ticket” is a perfect, darkly comical illustration of how capitalism works, and the Coens keep returning to the basic challenges of life in the West throughout the movie. Survival isn’t easy, which we also learn in ”All Gold Canyon”, one of the film’s most beautifully lensed chapters, and also a chance for Waits to shine as the stubborn old gold digger. Survival is certainly a theme also in ”The Gal Who Got Rattled”, but the directors emphasize other emotions here; the story of the young lady who tries to make it to Oregon and the wagon-train leader who falls for her is sweet and tragic. Like all the other chapters, it borrows elements from classic Hollywood Westerns, like an Indian attack.
The final chapter was shot entirely on a soundstage where the brothers and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel were completely in charge of the visuals. Death has followed us and the characters through this movie but it plays an even greater part here, as the stagecoach journeys into night before reaching the final destination – which is what you make of it. I loved Chelcie Ross as the talkative old trapper. And Brendan Gleeson gets to sing!
The film took some effort getting made, with bothersome location shooting in Nebraska, New Mexico and Colorado. It looks stunning though, with its crisp tones and meticulous details. Some of the tales are thin, but the cast, themes and humor more than compensate.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs 2018-U.S. 133 min. Color. Produced by Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Megan Ellison, Sue Naegle. Written and directed by Ethan Coen, Joel Coen. Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnel. Music: Carter Burwell. Song: ”When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” (Dave Rawlings, Gillian Welch). Cast: Tim Blake Nelson (Buster Scruggs), James Franco (Cowboy), Liam Neeson (Impresario), Tom Waits (Prospector), Zoe Kazan, Tyne Daly… Brendan Gleeson.
Venice: Best Screenplay.
Last word: “I just didn’t get why it was so important for Ethan – it was really important for Ethan – that I smack my chest when I walk through the door of the saloon. And he just kept saying it, and he kept tinkering with it, and then once when I didn’t do, he came up and said, ‘No, you gotta do it,’ and then I see it, in the film, and literally, there’s this ghost of my whole body as I pass through it, and it’s like I’ve created this shadow of myself that lingers in the air and then just dissipates. And it’s incredible. And I didn’t do that. Joel and Ethan did, because they envisioned it. They said, you know, he’ll come in, and he’ll pat himself and there’ll be this dust and it’ll have this really funny impact. And it’s just brilliant.” (Nelson, SlashFilm)