Film

Review: The Coen Brothers Go Western for a Meditation on Mortality in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The only thing more satisfying than Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men, True Grit) making a new Western film is them making six. More to the point, six short stories combined in an anthology film that was supposedly slated to be a six-episode Netflix series but currently exists as a single work, with the connective tissue being a beat-up, leathering book of stories from the Old West.

Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Image courtesy of Netflix

These six tales are not meant to capture true stories of the period, but instead are exaggerated parables that were once the prized possession of many a child. The are stories filled with cowboys and Indians (again, not realistically portrayed, but the stereotypes will be familiar), as well as prospectors, stagecoaches, sideshows, and a great deal of death. In fact, every one of these stories features death, so much so that you might almost consider it the movie’s primary theme. A couple of the tales are quite funny, as you would expect from the Coens, while others are thought provoking and even downright tragic. As with any anthology film, some of the short stories work better than others, but I don’t think there’s an outright stinker in the bunch, which is a rarity for this format.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs opens with its title track—a musical piece with the smiling, singing cowboy (played by Tim Blake Nelson) who sings of his travels. It also turns out, he’s a crack shot and has killed a great number of people, including the many he mows down in this chapter, all the while remaining a hospitable gentleman. He is challenged by another gunslinger, and before long we find out if Scruggs will be singing another murder song or his own funeral dirge.

The next two segments are odd but impressive. “Near Algodones” stars James Franco as a would-be bank robber who attempt to steal from an overly prepared teller (Stephen Root) and is captured and set to hang. With the noose around his neck, he is saved, only to be caught and strung up once again. The story seems to exist solely for its closing punchline, but its a doozy. “Meal Ticket” concerns two men traveling together making an honest living as an Impresario (Liam Neeson) and and Artist (Henry Melling), who set up a small stage out of their wagon where the Artist recites dramatic reading from the likes of Shakespeare and even the Declaration of Independence. The gimmick is that the Artist has no arms or legs and sits on a stool alone on stage making quite moving work of his speeches. I didn’t time any of the chapters, but this one feels the longest. It ends in such a shocking manner, you almost can’t believe what happens. I’m not sure it makes the story better, but you won’t forget it.

My favorite entry is “All Gold Canyon,” a simple story of a old prospector (a marvelous Tom Waits), who enters a seemingly normal valley and patiently works out where a likely pocket of gold might be. It’s a magnificent character study about determination, fortitude and the stubbornness of a old man who has nothing else to do but continue the search. The most complete story arc belongs to “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” starring Zoe Kazan as Alice, who is heading west as part of a wagon train with her sickly husband who ends up dying on the way. One of the train’s guides (Bill Heck) takes pity and a liking to her, and the two end up growing close as the journey continues. It’s a sweet romance with a bittersweet conclusion.

The closer, “The Mortal Remains,” also sums up a great deal of what we’ve seen in the whole film. A group of travelers (including Brendan Gleeson, Tyne Daly and Saul Rubinek) share a stagecoach and share stories about how they ended up on this particular journey. But as the ride progresses, we realize that the coffin on the roof of the vehicle might be symbolic of something more that awaits them at their destination. It’s a sly, amusing and fitting final chapter that makes for a highly satisfying viewing experience.

With a score by Carter Burwell and some stunningly captured views of Monument Valley, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs isn’t meant to feel like a proper Western, despite the many tools of the genre that are present. It uses the trimmings to examine how we respond to and cope with death in its many forms, and while that may sound heavier than the Coens tend to get, it’s actually a strangely moving exercise in looking at mortality in ways we don’t often do so. The Coens still know how to surprise us with both their writing and their philosophy.

The film opens theatrically today at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema, and is also streaming on Netflix.

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