TOM WAITS in the Coen brothers’ ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
(photo credit: NETFLIX)
Imagine combining the writings of Flannery O’Connor and Elmore Leonard with the movies of John Ford, and you have some idea of the bitterly ironic, often bleak and sometimes funny new Western by the Coen brothers, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which premieres on Netflix on November 16.
This anthology film, which won the Best Screenplay Award at the Venice Film Festival this year, is vintage Coen, as they revisit the terrain they mined in their True Grit remake, but with an even darker sensibility. Although it is set in the Old West, their vision here has the toughness of No Country for Old Men, which took place in the 1980s.
All six of the stories in the film are riveting and although they knew the film was destined to be seen mainly on the small screen, the Coens are at the top of their visual game. Watching it made me realize how beautiful their films can be. The West has never looked more majestic and in so many scenes, it’s the images that tell the story.
The framing device that links all the segments is an old book of illustrated stories and the connection between all of them is what a brutal place the Old West actually was. They refuse to romanticize it and put the violence and struggle for survival front and center. Interestingly, they also refuse to look back with 20/20 hindsight and a 21st century sensibility, most notably in their treatment of those who used to be known as Indians. Just as the often venal white characters are out to get and keep everything they can, so are the Indians, who are seen mostly in the long shots that were generally used in old movies, and are shown in full-attack mode.
The opening film, which stars Tim Blake Nelson in the title role, sets the tone, as the white-clad Buster, a sweet-talking singer who looks and sounds like a folk hero, turns out to be as villainous as they come. This segment features perhaps the purest dose of the brothers’ trademark darkly comic violence.
The weakest of the stories is “Near Algodones,” with James Franco as a bank robber with a knack for getting caught and only intermittent good luck.
“Meal Ticket,” one of the saddest stories the Coens have ever told, is about a limbless performer called The Wingless Thrush (Harry Melling, who played cousin Dudley in the Harry Potter movies but who looks completely different here) who is propped up on stage by his grizzled, taciturn impresario companion (Liam Neeson). The performer earns his keep by reciting poetry, Shakespeare, Bible stories and famous speeches, as the two travel from town to town. This artist is dependent on his manager for every bite of food he eats, a situation primed for tragedy.
“All Gold Canyon,” based on a Jack London story, features Tom Waits as an aging gold prospector who knows that he will be vulnerable to thieves the moment he strikes it rich, the simplest tale of the bunch.
“The Gal Who Got Rattled” tells the story of Alice (Zoe Kazan), a young woman traveling West to Oregon in a wagon train with her ailing brother, who finds herself turning to one of the guides (Bill Heck) for advice. This segment features a rare romance in Coen country and it spotlights how our ideas about love and marriage have evolved in some ways since the days portrayed here, and how in other ways everything has stayed the same.
The final story, “The Mortal Remains,” feels the most unfinished, as if it were meant to be part of a longer film. Three travelers who don’t agree on anything – a gruff trapper (Chelcie Ross), a priggish grandmother (Tyne Daly) and a jaded Frenchman (Saul Rubinek) – are being sent on a one-way coach journey (how could there be a Western without a stagecoach?) to the great beyond by two witty bounty hunters (Jonjo O’Neill and Brendan Gleeson).
While these stories may be a mixed bag, none are dull. All of them will have you on the edge of your seats, just as a good Western should. But no one would ever confuse these with a typical Western, and you’ll be raising your eyebrows and laughing as the Coen brothers depict cruel fate and often bizarre frontier justice.
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