The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: western approaches by the Coens

With the exception of festival reports and annual round-ups I haven’t written very often here about new movies, but every now and then something comes along which I feel merits a bit of a plug. Now, it might seem strange to be doing this for a movie by filmmakers as well known as Joel and Ethan Coen, but their latest – ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ – is no ordinary release. Indeed, because it’s a Netflix production, it’s barely getting a theatrical release at all in the UK – you can check for screenings on the Curzon Cinemas website – and sadly, some of you will only be able to watch it on Netflix. For that reason, the film is not getting the publicity it might get otherwise – so, since I caught it at the London Film Festival, and feel that some of its reviews haven’t really done it justice, I decided to put down a few thoughts about one of the most enjoyable new films I’ve seen all year.

The film consists of six episodes, which are the cinematic equivalent of short stories (the literary connection is even highlighted by having each section introduced by a shot of a page – complete with picturesque colour plate – of an old-fashioned book being turned). This, together with the Netflix connection, has led some reviewers to claim, erroneously, that the film was originally conceived as a TV miniseries – something the Coens have refuted, pointing out that with a running time of just 132 minutes (including credits), even allowing for cuts it would have been a ludicrously short miniseries. No, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is undoubtedly a movie (and let’s not forget that portmanteau movies used to be quite common), and that much is clear from its structure and its narrative arc.

buster misanthrope
Tim Blake Nelson as Buster Scruggs

For one thing, each episode is different in setting, style and mood, and together they constitute a demonstration, a celebration and an exploration of the range of the western genre. The opening ‘chapter’, which gives the overall film its title, pays fond tribute to the innocence and fundamental absurdity of the ‘singing cowboy’ sub-genre, accentuating that incongruity by having its baritone protagonist (Tim Blake Nelson) address us viewers directly while indulging in some of the most implausibly brilliant (and violently cartoon-like) gunplay presented in many a year. Next, ‘Near Algodones’ takes a turn into Leone land, with James Franco’s lone bank-robber coming a cropper when foiled by a hilariously garrulous and dementedly determined bank teller.

‘Meal Ticket’ is different again, a dark, sad, cruel tale of entertainment and exploitation in the Old West starring a virtually mute Liam Neeson and a quote-mongering Harry Melling. This is followed by ‘All Gold Canyon’ (based on a Jack London story), a parable of human greed threatening the environment, with Tom Waits in good form as a solitary gold-prospecting old-timer, and then by ‘The Girl That Got Rattled’, a wagon-train odyssey (the western genre’s equivalent of the road-movie, I suppose) which is the film’s one real foray into traditional cowboys-and-Indians territory. Finally, there is the brazenly allegorical ‘The Mortal Remains’ (pictured top), which references John Ford’s Stagecoach – and, perhaps, Victor Sjøstrøm’s The Phantom Carriage – while taking the film to its logical conclusion by way of much philosophical discussion between the various travellers on the complex ethics of the West.

Tom Waits in ‘All Gold Canyon’

Hopefully, the above description conveys something of the sheer range – visual, tonal and thematic – of the Coens’ film. (If not, the trailer at the end of this piece may help a little.) What should also be said is that the movie as a whole, notwithstanding its episodic structure, has a proper narrative arc, in that it is constantly concerned with death and destruction even as it moves steadily but surely from brash light comedy to something altogether darker (albeit still inflected with that characteristic Coens wit). Indeed, while the brothers are famously wary of ‘serious’ interpretations of their work, there is, in this seemingly straightforward, unpretentious tribute to the time-hallowed tropes of a once hugely popular genre, probably just as much substance to mull over as there was in enigmatic works like Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn’t There, A Serious Man, or Inside Llewyn Davis.

We should, I think, be alerted to the fact that there’s more going on than meets the eye when, within minutes of the start, the genial Scruggs introduces himself to us and insists he is not, as he has often been characterised, a misanthrope – a term all too frequently applied (wrongly, in my opinion) to the Coens themselves. Each story in this film is thought-provoking in one way or another, whether it’s the assessment of the public’s interest in art and entertainment in ‘Meal Ticket’ or the various poignant ironies of ‘The Girl That Got Rattled’ – which is, I believe, with its tender account of the affection growing between the characters played by Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck, the first real love story the Coens have ever made. (Fargo’s depiction of Marge and Norm doesn’t count, as that’s just one small aspect of the bigger story.) Certainly, I for one found this penultimate chapter – probably the longest in the film – very touching indeed, as well as thrillingly suspenseful.

Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck in ‘The Girl That Got Rattled’

So what’s the rumpus, what does it all add up to? Well, the West depicted is very wild, not only in its violence and hardship, but in the sense that life there is presented as susceptible to wild and very often very destructive chance: bad stuff happens, all the time. The characters all have their individual dreams and ambitions, their projects and plans, their ethical and existential certainties, but in the end there’s only one certainty, and that is human mortality. Buster’s songs, the quoting of Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ in ‘Meal Ticket’, the discussion of the comparative value of certainty and uncertainty in ‘The Girl That Got Rattled’, the empty assertions of moral and spiritual superiority in ‘The Mortal Remains’ – all these suggest that the Coens, far from simply having a bit of generic fun, are up to their sly old tricks again. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is, rest assured, fine entertainment, but it’s also about something. You just have to look, listen, and give it a little thought.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has a limited theatrical release (in the UK at a number of Curzon Cinemas) and can also be seen from today on Netflix.

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