‘The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs’

Another Western Masterpiece From The Coen Brothers

Who’da thunk that a coupla nice Jewish boys living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side would become arguably the best living directors of the Western? Then again, Joel and Ethan Coen have built a career on subverting expectations. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a sextet of silly, shocking, pitiless, ruminative looks at life on the frontier, is a delightful, and deceptively profound, addition to the filmmakers’ existential vision of America’s expanse. And it also cements their status as the 21stcentury successors to John Ford.

The Coens’ 1984 debut, the Texas-set Blood Simple, was technically a neo-noir, but had the fatalistic lawlessness of the Old West. 2007’s Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, another Lone Star masterpiece, continued their transition from crime thriller to out-and-out modern Oater. They then bested one of Hollywood’s most beloved classics, True Grit, and scored their biggest box-office hit in 2010 with a grittier Grit that brought in more than $250 million worldwide.

Don’t forget that the Coens’ version of True Grit is not a remake of the 1969 movie but technically another film adaptation of the original 1968 book by Charles Portis. And No Country for Old Men is based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel. These brothers are bookworms, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is their cheeky ode to the genre’s roots in fiction by authors like Zane Grey and Jack London (who even gets name-checked in the film’s credits).


THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS ★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen
Written by: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: James Franco, Brandan Gleeson, Zoe Kazan, Liam Neeson, Tim Blake Nelson, Tom Waits strong>
Running time: 133 min.


 

That literary conceit is also literal. Buster Scruggs kicks off with a shot of a dusty, worn, vintage hardcover novel opening up to reveal a table of contents with each tale’s name. Every film section starts with a close-up of the story’s first page, ends with a close-up of the last page, and includes a dramatic colored illustration worthy of a Louis L’Amour paperback. There’s a reverence to this wraparound affectation, like gilded wrapping paper on a precious gift.

It’s funny to think that this whole endeavor started when Netflix hired the Coens to make a six-part limited series. “We’re streaming motherfuckers!” announced the brothers in a joint statement last year. The whole idea was absurd: these are the guys who make movies that debut at film festivals before playing in theaters. They admitted at a Cannes press conference not so long ago that they don’t even watch TV. So here we are, a year later, and the 6-part limited series Buster Scruggs is now a movie that debuted at film festivals before playing in theaters. Old habits die hard.

“Ayup. Me Too.”

So, too, does good storytelling. These episodes just don’t pack the same wallop by themselves. Buster Scruggs is meant to be a movie. There’s an emotional build in binge-watching all six, and doing so in a specific order.

Start with the titular crooner (Tim Blake Nelson), a preternaturally talented gunslinger who breaks into song after committing homicide without skipping a beat. Then ease into James Franco’s bank robber, who finds a noose around his neck not once but twice. (“First time?” he murmurs to a cohort, in a sublime example of gallows humor.)  Though lightly told, this pair deftly illustrates how, among the seeds of society, death can be fickle, random, and wickedly cruel.

Next is the chillingly deadpan look at a laconic impresario (Liam Neeson) who finds a limbless thespian with a money-making knack for oration—until a counting chicken upstages the act. And after that is Tom Waits as a prospector, exploiting the land for gold before someone else tries to exploit him. As the Coens have shown before, the thirst for wealth in the West usually leaves a trail of destruction.

The last two episodes are dark odes to nascent civilization. Zoe Kazan joins her feckless brother on a wagon train through Indian country and finds herself fretfully navigating the self-interests of everyone around her. And a stagecoach full of travelers (including Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, and Saul Rubinek) adds the perfect coda to this collection, a summary statement and a sort of sassy Socratic dialogue among strangers all wrestling with how and why people interact the way they do.

The Coens have spent their professional lives turning in work that uses a glib sensibility to expose tragic flaws in humanity. Despite the impeccable craftsmanship, handsome production design and lustrous cinematography, there’s a toss-off texture to Buster Scruggs that belies deeper currents. It’s as though the Coens tried their best to create an easily digestible TV series with compact narratives and snappy pacing. But they failed miserably in making anything less than a cumulative revelation.

Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. He is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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