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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Six paths, six stories, that all say the same bloody thing

dir: Coens

2018

Usually I’d argue that anthology films are kind of a waste of time and resources unless you’re in the mood for the cinematic equivalent of tapas instead of an actual meal, but, hell, it’s the Coens, it’s on Netflix, and I’d be a fool to not see it, considering the, I dunno, 14 or so truly great films they’ve made so far. It’s a reasonable bet to give them the benefit of the doubt, and it pays off most of the time.

Except when it doesn’t. But this is not one of those times. The fact that these stories are told in short story form, is the perfect delivery device for the overall package, because there’s no real connection between any of the stories, other than that people suck. It’s not the first time the Coens have ventured in the realm of the Western, but it’s the most recent, and probably the funniest. There is a certain mordent grimness as well, which befits the frontier setting, one which maybe implies man’s drive to ‘conquer’ the New World was an inherently deadly business.

Almost all the stories trade in death, in that death is either an element of the story, or the punchline to it, but not always. The last story, as far as I could tell, is entirely about death, with a number of people lead unawares to their final reward on a stagecoach, and yet they also argue about the nature of love, tedium, loneliness, the value of speaking the same language as someone you’ve shacked up with. All while the driver drives on.

The stories are bookended with images from a literal book being leafed through, as if these are all stories from the same book, by the same author, but really it’s mostly the Coens putting together some stories they thought up over the years (one of the stories is from Jack London, probably the best one, but who could tell) and making it look like there’s an overarching theme or connection at work.

There isn’t. Their only point is the same one they borrowed when they made No Country for Old Men, which is that there is no mercy, no divine grace, no power of prayer, no divine intercession on our behalf, and evil easily triumphs over good because it is way meaner and wants the prize more.

Again, except when it doesn’t. There is a wry approach at play here, where luck doesn’t really seem to go anyone’s way for too long, and misunderstandings lead to tragedy, or where venality wins out over virtue, but it’s not meant in a mean way, if that makes any sense, and it probably doesn’t.

The first story, which shares the title of the movie, is about a happy-go-lucky singing cowboy (Tim Blake Nelson) who looks like and sounds like the clear embodiment of all that jerks used to love about cowboy movies. Not only that but, like Deadpool, or any number of other characters who talk directly to the audience, this jerk tells us all about how wonderful he is, through his particular song and dance routine. And wouldn’t you know it, he’s quite handy with a gun.

So good, in fact, that he pretty much kills everyone wherever he goes. The enthusiasm he brings to ending people’s lives is at odds with his cheerful manner and accomplished entertaining, but at the very least you have to admit he loves his work.

After killing yet another person who gives him the opportunity, after a card game goes wrong, and someone tries to force him to play another man’s cards (the infamous Dead Man’s Hand, the one Wild Bill Hickock played at the time of his death), someone mourning the death of his recently departed brother calls Buster out, and is swiftly and humiliatingly sent to his maker.

But then another guy rolls along. He’s handsome, all dressed in black, and he challenges Buster Scruggs to a duel as well. We’ve just seen Scruggs kill something like 30 people in the last five minutes, and he hasn’t even broken a sweat, so we could assume that the same thing will happen again like everything that happened before.

But, you can’t stay at the top forever. Sweetly, Buster and the new Kid in town sing a duet about how hard it is to trade your spurs for an angel’s wings.

It’s bonkers, but somehow it manages to be cheery.

With a hard transition to the next story, a bank robber (James Franco) approaches an isolated bank standing in the middle of nowhere (actually, we can assume, the bank is somewhere Near Algodones, as the section is titled). The robber is arrogant. The weirdo (Stephen Root) who runs the bank is not. He is not only expecting the ensuing crime, he’s ready for it in goofy yet effective ways.

From then on, the robber teeters on the edge of life and death, without any say in the matter either way. He’s completely lost all self-determination, as his fate swings wildly from looking like he’s going to survive to looking like his circumstances couldn’t get more dire.

The hilarious thing is, whether we care about his survival or not (I have to admit I didn’t, not because the character is a bad man, which he is, but because it’s James Franco, and it’s hard not to wish for bad things to happen to him) all that happens is just for the punchline, where the robber consoles another soon-to-be dead prisoner with the words “is this your first time?” I’m ashamed to admit I laughed like an idiot for a very long time when I heard that.

All of the stories have a certain, I dunno if “meanness” is the word I’m looking for, but the streak is there, nowhere as much as Meal Ticket, which is probably the bleakest of the stories, maybe. A jerk (Liam Neeson) carts around a poor young chap without arms and legs (Harry Melling) who loudly performs ‘hits’ from the classics, like the Bible, or Shakespeare, or from Ozymandias, or Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to audiences. They make some money off of these surly crowds of hillbillies and frontier folk, but the pickings get leaner the colder it gets.

And, boy, what a week Liam Neeson’s been having. Playing an awful person here is the least of his worries now.

Other than the loud performances of the so-called “wingless thrush”, most of the rest of the storytelling occurs without a lot of words. There’s no affection between the two men, but there is mutual need. We might wonder how they came to be together, but it’s not for us to know. Are they bonded solely by need, or ties of family, or something more tenuous? It could have been anything, something, but we’ll never know, especially after someone decides to replace the other with a younger model.

This one story is, no doubt, even after the bleak scene at the bordello, the saddest / meanest of the stories, with little to leaven the sour taste it leaves behind.

The next story about gold, GOLD!, has in it one of my favourite human beings in this or any other world. A crazed looking prospector (the legendary Tom Waits) stumbles across a wilderness area so pristine, so pure, that you know some human is going to have to ruin it all with their very human ways. He is alone, but he knows what he wants, and presumably he knows how to get it. He seeks not just gold, but a large deposit of it, which he takes to calling “Mr Pocket”, which is the kind of weird thing you are comfortable with Tom Waits doing but you’d roll your eyes and look askance if it was absolutely anyone else.

Because it’s not as flat out mean as some of the other ones, and because, considering its jaw-dropping natural setting, and the natural odd-charms of the character, it’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security, just as the prospector character does. I mean, there’s no-one else around, he ‘respects’ to an extent, the natural order that he is surrounded by, to the extent that when he goes to steal some eggs from an owl, he puts most of them back when he’s busted. He even does it in an apologetic way, but the man still needs his protein.

Of course things can’t continue like this forever, because then it would be a story about a guy who searches for gold, finds it, and then goes on his merry way, without a mountain falling on him or some other kinds of tragedies whose purpose is solely to remind us that the Humphrey Bogart gold fever drama The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was not a comedy, and greed is bad.

This is the most shocking of the stories, but also the most hopeful, in that if someone was relying on luck in order to survive, in this story (and none of the others) could you argue that things actually go the protagonist’s way – until they don’t, but then maybe they do again, if you think of the universe as being a place where things happen for a reason, moral or otherwise. I mean, the Coens previously designated an entire movie (A Serious Man) about the silence of God in the face of the random chaos that we bathe in, that all sorts of things happen to people without rhyme or reason, that bad things happen to good people, and then worse things, and it’s all independent of whether we had good intentions or not. Though I guess you could argue the moralistic case that the old prospector, living somewhat respectfully in the midst of nature, earns his grace, contrasted with the bank robber in the earlier piece who can’t catch a break (because he’s a piece of shit played by James Franco, don’t you know).

The Girl Who Got Rattled is a return to form (in that it’s more like the other, more dismal installments), because when you watch a bunch of pilgrim types in those covered wagons who start following the Oregon Trail, you know it’s not going to go well for someone, if not all of them. Alice (Zoe Kazan) is sweet, and intelligent enough to articulately express the precariousness of her position, and, without explicitly stating it in feminist terms, how completely loaded the dice are against her in these circumstances. Her stupid and ineffectual brother has just died, but her problems are just beginning, mostly because she’s a woman with zero agency. It’s not by choice, it’s the era, and the society that she lives in against her will, probably, but her tragedy is that she’s intelligent enough to be able to articulate what this lack of agency means for her.

Even with her brother gone, she finds herself still trapped by her brother’s poor decision making, but there almost exists a glimmer of hope (not for her to achieve any self-determination, unfortunately) that she may be delivered from her dire economic circumstances, in the form of a wagon train leader called Mr Knapp (Bill Heck), who speaks to her in convoluted but always respectful ways. After several interactions, he proposes an alliance based on mutual need and potential benefit to them both (the language is so, so hot), and she agrees.

But this is the Coens we’re talking about. Expecting a ‘happy’ ending to this tale would be akin to expecting an episode of Black Mirror to not be horribly demoralising. It would be a sucker’s bet. They’re in a wagon train crossing Comanche territory, so inevitably bad shit is going to happen to someone. It’s just that, remember, the point of all their films is, the universe is chaotic randomness, and bad things happen to good people because bad things happen to everyone.

It could be that the outcome of this vignette hurt the most, perhaps because of the false promise of a way out of her predicament that was dangled before us, but no matter.

The last installment, and the least, is The Mortal Remains, where, clearly, a whole bunch of dead people are talking about not being dead and about how they’re not being transported to their eternal reward (or lack thereof) when they very clearly are. They are meant to be going to a hotel at Fort Morgan, but, c’mon, who are you trying to kid. The one odd link I could determine, and this only happened because I immediately, after the film ended, re-watched the first story again.

In the scene in the first story where Buster Scruggs walks into a salon, and a jerk insists that he play another man’s cards, and the cards end up being the Dead Man’s Hand, there’s an oddly out of place guy, with a particular hairstyle. In the first installment that character, who gets zero lines, is played by David Krummholz. In the last installment, the character is played by Saul Rubinek, who’s famous for a lot of things, but one of his most memorable roles was in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, as a scribe who seeks to idolise the scumbags of cowboy legend, only to be confronted by the grimy reality. Here, the older character briefly relates the same story of the Dead Man’s Hand, and how wrong it would be to force a man to play another’s cards. I’m pretty sure it’s meant to be the same character much later in life, but as to what it ultimately means I have no freaking idea.

It’s okay as a capper, as a send off, but it’s not really as strong as some of the other vignettes, and it finishes the proceedings on a fairly gloomy note, which is neither here nor there. If that’s what the Coens wanted, then, bravo, mission accomplished. Does the whole package hang together? I dunno, not for sure, not yet. There are moments where I wonder as to whether all of the vignettes added something, or whether they could be excised completely, and the thing is, it’s hard to say yet. Maybe in time I’ll have a clearer idea, with some parts coming further to the fore, and others seeming less well realised, to be able to say in the scheme of things whether this is a towering achievement or just something that kills a few hours of your time. Probably a lot more people will see this only because Netflix keeps bloody well pushing it on to us, but it’s also safe to say that the flick would never had been seen or discussed as much if it had been made exactly the same, but with anyone else’s name on the front of it.

Let’s be honest, though. No-one really is as Coen Brothers-y as the Coen Brothers are. Thank God or Satan for that.

7 times this is clearly not my first time doing this out of 10

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“You know the story, but people can't get enough of them, like little children. Because, well, they connect the stories to themselves, I suppose, and we all love hearing about ourselves, so long as the people in the stories are us, but not us. Not us in the end, especially.” – The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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