Combustible Celluloid
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With: Tim Blake Nelson, Willie Watson, David Krumholtz, E.E. Bell, Clancy Brown, James Franco, Stephen Root, Ralph Ineson, Jesse Luken, Liam Neeson, Harry Melling, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck, Grainger Hines, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Jonjo O’Neill, Saul Rubinek, Chelcie Ross
Written by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Directed by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
MPAA Rating: R for some strong violence
Running Time: 133
Date: 11/16/2018

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Death Rides a Dark Horse

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

With this six-pack anthology, the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, have sent a love-letter on a picture postcard to all the Western fans out there. Like some of the Coens' stranger films, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs will not be to every taste, but for a few of us it's a treasure trove worth re-visiting, whether in small dips, or in another deep-dive. It's an odd film, funny and haunting, by turns, and it takes a little getting used to.

Most anthology films — and the majority of them seem to be of the horror genre — usually strike their viewers with an uneven quality; there's a difference of pitch or tone among the different tales and they don't often seem to match up. Moreover, despite their seeming simplicity, short films (like short stories) are not as easy as they look, and finding an ending is always an issue. To make matters more difficult, the great O. Henry has spoiled endings forever, making everyone believe that some kind of clever twist is required each time out.

At first glance, the six stories in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs don't seem to have these satisfying clicks for endings, but I found myself thinking about each of them long after the movie ended, pondering their depths and their little twists of fate, and the sheer confidence and unpredictability of the storytelling. Perhaps another of the movie's flaws comes not in the filmmaking, but in the choice of order. The funniest story, the title one, comes first. It's hilarious, and nothing else after it comes even halfway close in the laughs department.

Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) is amazing as the singing cowboy Buster Scruggs, who, with his ten-dollar talk and immaculate white suit, is frequently mistaken for a pushover, but his skills at survival are as surprising (and as funny) as whatever the next thing out of his mouth is. Clancy Brown and David Krumholtz co-star in this one.

The second, "Near Algodones," is probably the best-constructed of the bunch. James Franco plays a would-be bank robber who tangles with a wily clerk (Stephen Root) and winds up at the wrong end of a rope. To say much more would ruin the perfection of this little jewel, which plays on very little dialogue. Perhaps the most poignant line in the movie, "now that's a pretty girl," closes it.

The third, "Meal Ticket," has haunted me since I saw it; one of my colleagues compared it to Fellini's La Strada, and that's apt, but it's far more melancholy. Harry Melling, best known as Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films, plays a performing artist called the Wingless Thrush. He has no arms and no legs, and he sits on a stool and performs, with exacting, automatic tones, a selection of classic, rather humorless plays, poems, and speeches. Liam Neeson plays his caretaker, who feeds him, sets up and tears down the stage, and drives the coach from town to town, where the act plays to ever-dwindling crowds. This one is surprising in the way that it turns on a silly, comic note, and then turns again on a moment of heartbreaking shock.

The fourth, "All Gold Canyon" — which seems to have been adapted, without credit, from the story by Jack London — centers on a prospector (Tom Waits) and his meticulous search for a vein of gold. He arrives in a pristine meadow, causing the wildlife to leave, and takes his time measuring gold in various spots before finally digging. Again, I won't go any further, but it is a treat to hear Waits growling and moaning his rendition of "Mother Macree" as he works.

I'm not 100% sure, but the fifth, "The Gal Who Got Rattled," seems the longest of the stories. It also has a rather abrupt ending, which, somehow, seems more jarring after having sat through a much longer story, but it's so well told that it doesn't matter. Zoe Kazan plays Alice Longabaugh, traveling toward Oregon by wagon train with her annoying brother (Jefferson Mays). Unfortunately (or fortunately), her brother kicks off, leaving Alice without a plan. She decides to go on, but trouble comes when their money can't be found. Alice confides in guide Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), who offers to help, but it takes many nights and many conversations for a plan to be formed. This one, oddly, seems to center on conversations rather than visuals, but it still manages to be a visual story, and the conversations are somehow rather touching.

Finally we have "The Mortal Remains," with five passengers crammed in a stagecoach. Brendan Gleeson and Jonjo O’Neill are a pair of bounty hunters, seemingly (they have a dead body strapped to the top of the coach), while Tyne Daly, Saul Rubinek, and Chelcie Ross are strangers. There's a mysterious, metaphysical quality to this one as we begin to realize that the conversations may not be about what they seem to be about. Again, there's no definitive twist or solution here, but it leaves the entire movie off with a fatalistic, weird, yet not unpleasant, end-note. (In that vein, it's closer to the Coens' films A Serious Man or Inside Llewyn Davis than to their comedies.)

It's worthwhile to consider the progression of the stories, from funny to dark, from light to gloomy, from wide open spaces to enclosed spaces. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs may seem like a lightweight movie, especially since it's named for its silly title story, but in reality it falls somewhere between the Coens' other Westerns, No Country for Old Men and True Grit, even though it also resembles the cowboy movie sequences of Hail, Caesar! Many Westerns use the genre to explore the conflict between untamed wildness and civilized rules, but the Coens seem to be thinking more along the lines of life and death, perhaps the prospect of life in the old days versus the prospect of life today. There's humor in those comparisons, but then, on the other hand, death never changes.

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