Release: Friday, November 9, 2018 (limited)
Written by: Joel Coen; Ethan Coen
Directed by: Ethan Coen; Joel Coen
For a fleeting moment The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the new Coen brothers film — a big shiny red apple waiting to be plucked from the ever-growing Netflix tree — was also available for more traditional consumption in theaters. But who wants to be a traditionalist when what is most conveniently available to you is a dingy theater chain down the road called Cinépolis — a place where the box office is no longer used, the employees couldn’t care less about making patrons feel welcomed, the quality of the projection is appalling and the seating choices you’re given are either Sticky Seat A or blown-out Chair B. I don’t know about overrated, but when one weekend outing to this crumbling facility costs you the same as if not more than a one month subscription, “tradition” is inarguably overpriced.
Netflix and the like will never replace the wow factor of the big screen, yet they are making life a little cushier, providing more viewers more direct access to more quality offerings. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a prime example, a six-part western anthology soaked in the Coen aesthetic — it’s equal measures funny, strange and morbid, features spectacular landscape photography and it’s all pulled together by a wonderful cast, not to mention the filmmakers’ deep, abiding love for the genre. Their latest marks a return to ingenuity following 2016’s rather forgettable Hail, Caesar! and has garnered Oscar nominations in the Adapted Screenplay, Costume Design and Original Song categories, firmly placing Buster Scruggs among the better streaming options of the New Release variety.
The Coen brothers’ 18th collaboration provides a collection of independent stories ranging in tone from playful and romantic to macabre and downright weird — one chapter tickling your ribs before the next punches you in the gut. Speaking of tradition, the narrative style draws attention to what has consistently set the Coen brothers apart from the rest, their ability to merge the farcical with the fucked-up not only on display within each scene but as well highlighted by structural juxtaposition (right now I’m thinking of the contrast between “Near Algodones,” featuring James Franco as a bank robber who gets more than he bargained for when he comes up against Stephen Root’s bank teller, and “Meal Ticket,” with Liam Neeson playing a traveling entertainer willing to do anything for a better paying gig).
Like the Coens’ previous effort, Buster Scruggs is a lovingly crafted ode to a historically significant time in Hollywood — the era of the great western. Unlike Hail, Caesar!, however, here you’ll find a more harmonious balance of style and substance, the film literally bookended by the opening and closing of an old hardback, each segment segued by page-turning, complete with colored illustrations and a few sentences that clue you in to what is about to unfold.
Meanwhile the production design is brilliantly realized, cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel adapting different color gradients and tints to coordinate with the predominate colors in any given vignette. Take for example the pastel yellows of the opening movement, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” featuring Tim Blake Nelson as a fast-talking, even faster gunslinging outlaw who has to his name one of the most creative kill shots of all time; the piney greens of “All Gold Canyon,” featuring singer Tom Waits as a lonely prospector; and the dusty browns of “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” the film’s longest segment and arguably most emotive, with Zoe Kazan as Alice Longabaugh, a young maiden whose 1000-mile journey to Oregon is complicated when she meets a true gentleman along the way, a wagon train leader named Billy Knapp and played by Bill Heck.
Despite the lack of common characters and an array of different outcomes the arrangement is hardly random. The action contained within each chapter — some of which are more loquacious than action-driven, admittedly — address a motif of survivalism, or more accurately, the fatalistic way life and death often intersect on the unforgiving frontier. The final segment — “The Mortal Remains,” which finds five strangers en route to Fort Morgan, Colorado via stagecoach debating the “two types” of people who exist in the world — wraps both the physical and the philosophical journey up on a decidedly weird note, addressing not just the mortality of man but his morality as well.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs may not be the best Coen brothers film — it’s not even their best western (that honor still belongs to No Country for Old Men with Bad Haircuts). Yet the overall experience is never less than intriguing and more often than not surprisingly hard to predict.
Recommendation: What’s most appealing about The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is the variety of experiences offered up. If one part doesn’t quite grab you, you won’t have to wait another year or two for something better; sit tight for another 10 to 20 minutes and you might find yourself more at home. No two stories feature the same characters and each present unique conflicts. Each have their own charms and quirks. It may not be among the Coens’ most original works but it may be one of my personal favorites, packing a hell of a lot of intrigue into two-and-a-half rather fleeting hours.
Running Time: 133 mins.
Quoted: “There’s just gotta be a place up ahead, where men ain’t low down, and poker’s played fair. If there weren’t, what are all the songs about? I’ll see y’all there. And we can sing together and shake our heads over all the meanness in the used to be.”
All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.