Ballad of Buster Scruggs, The (Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, 2018) Tim Blake Nelson, Willie Watson, Clancy Brown; six tales of life and violence in the Old West, following a singing gunslinger, a bank robber, a traveling impresario, an elderly prospector, a wagon train, and a perverse pair of bounty hunters
I loved this.
If Joel and Ethan Coen’s Hail, Caesar! left you impatient for when the sibling filmmakers were gonna get serious again, I have good news and bad news. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the anthology film that’s not so much a collection of Western stories as it is a collection of stories about Western stories, is every bit as goofy, if not goofier, than Hail, Caesar! It is at the same time as death-obsessed as any film they’ve ever done, and as fatalistically mordant as A Serious Man.
Opening with the image of a story book, Ballad opens with the title story, about a very cheerful singing cowboy of the name of Scruggs, who after breaking the fourth wall in song and dialogue, reveals a “Wanted” poster that advertises him as “The Misanthrope.” Played by Tim Blake Nelson flashing his most hilarious grin, he doesn’t SEEM like a curmudgeon right off the bat. We soon learn that he will kill you as soon as look at you, literally. So there’s that. This story considers the maxim about how if you’re the fastest gun in the west, there’s always a fella who’s gonna want to prove he’s faster. The next story, with James Franco as a would-be bank-robber who gets lucky, exists solely for the sake of a two-word joke that’s one of the funniest in the Coen filmography. Things turn extremely grim in “Meal Ticket” and possibly grimmer still in … well, I don’t want to say. This film has a lot in it; at 133 minutes, it’s just a little longer than No Country For Old Men, which I believe was the longest picture these very tight moviemakers had done until now. But it’s extremely fleet and beautifully crafted. For as much as the movie is a pastiche, it’s clear the filmmakers researched the hell out of the period detail; and they have a lot of fun, as they usually do, with verbal usage, reveling in the ornate locution used by characters in pulp Westerns. (Zoe Kazan gets to pronounce “apophthegm” in one line.)
They also adhere to pulp convention in the portrayal of Native Americans, which I imagine will raise some eyebrows when the film gets to viewers in the States. The logic of it is genuine, but people who complained about the lack of diversity in Hail, Caesar! aren’t going to find much to placate them here. In fact, they may wind up feeling subtweeted, which would be ridiculous, because nobody undertakes this big of a production just for a subtweet.
Garry Gillard | reviews | New: 11 March, 2019 | Now: 28 May, 2023