The Coen Brothers are back with a wild west anthology that’s hilarious, sad, violent, and a poignant summary of their entire, wonderful career.
The Coen Bros. are apparently on a lifelong quest to make every single kind of movie. They’ve already made film noirs, crime capers, screwball comedies, bluegrass musicals, spy films, religious parables, remakes and westerns, to name a few, so an old-fashioned anthology flick was bound to pop up on their resumé eventually.
Well, it’s here, it’s called The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and it’s one of their finest films. It’s a collection of wild west stories, each with different attitudes and cast members, but all united by a common theme: ironic death.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs doesn’t have a framing device to speak of. There’s a book, someone opens it, and we slowly turn the page from one story to the next. Never mind who’s reading it or why. You’re reading it, so pay attention, it’s going to be good.
The first installment, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” stars Coen Bros. veteran Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother Where Art Thou?) as a singing cowboy in the mold of Gene Autry, wearing all white, talking cheerfully to the camera, and singing his heart out in middle of the desert. As Buster makes his way to civilization, we discover that his friendly demeanor – which couldn’t possibly be conducive living on the edge of civilization – is all a façade, and he’s actually the deadliest human being in the world.
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” the short, is set apart from all the other segments in the movie. It’s self-aware about the western genre, evoking no recognizable reality and instead commenting on the lie of the genre. The wild west wasn’t fun; it was brutal and hard, and when you juxtapose the fun films in the genre with anything resembling actual history you get something disturbing and wrong.
The next segment, “Near Algodones,” stars James Franco as a bank robber who gets more than he bargained for when he tries to pull a heist in the middle of nowhere. A series of violent and hilarious shenanigans later, he’s on the verge of death, but fate isn’t done with him. It’s as though destiny wants to kill him but always gets distracted at the very last minute. It’s a trifle of a short but it makes the point of the movie quite clear: death is around every corner, and it’s got a sick sense of humor.
It’s about to get depressing, because the next segment, “Meal Ticket,” is about the sad life of a young actor with no arms or legs (Harry Melling, from the Harry Potter franchise), who depends entirely on his manager (Liam Neeson) for his care. But times are hard, audiences are scarce, and if the artist can longer carry his own weight, what’s the impresario to do?
Cheer up! Because “All Gold Canyon” is next, and it stars Tom Waits as a prospector alone in the wilderness, working his tail off to find a pocket of gold that could change his fortune forever. This is a Coen Bros. film so all does not go according to plan, but perhaps it’s more important to notice how nature responds to his misadventure, clearing the hell out when he arrives and moving right back in the second the coast is clear.
The penultimate installment, “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” stars Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick) as a young woman whose brother is dragging her across the country to get her married. But when her brother dies she’s left to her own devices in the middle of a wagon train, with hard decisions to make but, for the first time, the possibility of building her own future.
“The Gal Who Got Rattled” goes on so long you almost forget you’re watching an anthology, but the Coens are luring you into a false sense of security. None of these characters knows they’re in a short story, they all think they’re the star of their own epic novel, and by this point anyone even half paying attention knows that the Coen Bros. are rigidly enforcing the structure by any twist of fate necessary. They are the gods here, and they have their own plans.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs concludes with a quiet but portentous installment, “The Mortal Remains,” in which a carriage full of travelers discovers that their sharing the ride with a corpse, and two bounty hunters played by Brendan Gleeson and Jonjo O’Neill (Patrick Melrose). Pay close attention to the dialogue in “The Mortal Remains,” because without explaining anything, they explain the entire point of the movie, and of the Coen Bros.’ entire career.
For 34 years now, Joel and Ethan Coen have been making films that appear completely different in their genre, but are in fact exactly the same. Every film features characters who desperately make plans only to get completely screwed over by happenstance. In narrative fiction, fatalism is its own fate. By cramming this many Coen tales into one place the filmmakers are bringing into sharp relief everything that fascinates them about the human experience, which is simultaneously the most important thing in the world and, in the last few moments, utterly pointless.