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Josh Reviews The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The newest film from the Coen Brothers, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, is available for viewing on Netflix.  The film consists of six short-stories, all set in the Old West.  I thought the film was marvelous — it’s weird and funny and heartbreaking… and did I say weird?  The film’s heart beats with the Coen Brothers’ uniquely off-kilter sensibility.  I can see how it might strain the patience of someone looking for a more standard, traditionally structured narrative film.  But I loved pretty much every minute of it.

The first short is the The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (from which the movie draws its name), and I think it’s my favorite of the six.  Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Syriana, The Incredible Hulk) is perfect as the titular singing gunslinger, delivering possibly the best performance of his career.  He’s funny and vicious and sad.  It’s a great role and he kills it.  This short perfectly sets the tone for the entire film.  It looks like a Western, but this isn’t your average Western.  I love how Buster talks right too the audience; I love his singing; and I love the quickly-escalating looniness of the ending.  Also: David Krumholtz (Serenity, The Deuce) and Clancy Brown (Highlander, The Shawshank Redemption, and the best voice of Lex Luthor ever, appearing in many of Bruce Timm’s DC animated series) pop up in small roles!

In the second short, Near Algodones, James Franco plays a cowboy who finds himself facing the hangman’s noose, twice, after a bank robbery attempt goes awry.  This is probably the slightest of the six shorts, but it’s still a solid enough little yarn.  James Franco is great in the mostly-silent role of a cowboy with pretty lousy luck, and the great Stephen Root (Newsradio, Office Space) is a hoot as the nutty pots-and-pans-wearing bank teller who is just too smart to be bested.  (I love the “first time?” punchline at the end, expertly delivered by Mr. Franco.)

Meal Ticket is the grimmest of the six shorts.  Liam Neeson plays an old man who runs a traveling theatre show, in which an armless and legless man, played by Harry Melling, recites dramatic monologues to mostly-uninterested crowds.  This is a sad story with an unpleasant ending, and it seems curiously perverse to cast Mr. Neeson, an actor with one of the most magnificent voices in Hollywood, in a mostly-silent role.  After the fun of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, these next two shorts had me a little unsettled.  But things take an upswing with short number four.  (And I do think that Meal Ticket is a very well-made short story.  It’s just so depressing that it wasn’t much fun to watch.)  By the way, I was shocked to discover that Harry Melling played Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films!  He’s lost all that weight — I didn’t recognize him at all.  His performance here shows his skills as an actor that he never really got to use in the Potter films, where he was mostly a punchline.

All Gold Canyon tells the story of a prospector (Tom Waits) digging for gold in a beautiful, pristine valley.  It’s a tour de force performance for Mr. Waits, who is alone on screen for almost the entire short.  (Who knew Mr. Waits was such a terrific actor??)  This short could very easily have been played just for comedy, but the Coen Brothers cleverly coat the whole thing in an aura of melancholy, as their camerawork (and the series of opening shots emphasizing the natural beauty of the valley) cast the prospector as the villain, an invader come to desecrate this beautiful landscape in his selfish pursuits.  But the story gradually and sneakily shifts our sympathies, and I found myself rooting for the prospector by the end.  This seems like the simplest of the shorts on the surface, but I found it to be one of the most interesting and complex.

The Gal Who Got Rattled is the longest of the shorts.  Zoe Kazan (one of many actors from The Deuce in this film, and who recently really impressed me in The Big Sick) plays a young woman, Alice, accompanying her brother on a wagon train to Oregon, where he has a new business venture and also, apparently, a promise of marriage for her.  But he dies en route, and Alice is left alone to fend for herself, burdened with her brother’s debts.  She’s assisted by a helpful and friendly cowboy, Gilbert, played by Jefferson Mays, and the two gradually strike up a friendship.  This is the sweetest of the shorts, and also the coldest.  When it ended, I was angry at the Coen Brothers by the fate they wrote for one of the characters in this short.  I respect the power of their storytelling, in that I was completely caught up in the tale they were telling.  I also respect their unwillingness to tell a traditional type of story, though this was one example where I was rooting for a happier ending.  Still, like all of the shorts in this film, this story was exquisitely well-told (and gorgeous to look at).

The final short story in the film is The Mortal Remains.  A curious assemblage of characters played by Tyne Daly (Cagney & Lacey, Judging Amy), Brendan Gleeson (Braveheart, Michael Collins, Kingdom of Heaven, The Guard), Saul Rubenik (Unforgiven, Frasier, Curb Your Enthusiasm), Chelcie Ross (Major League, Hoosiers), and Jojo O’Neill (Defiance, Band of Brothers) share a stagecoach ride together, and discuss matters of love, life, and death.  On the surface, this short is a wonderful character study of these unique characters and their very different personalities and outlooks.  As the short story unfolds, however, we realize that something else is going on and the story takes a very different, slightly supernatural, turn.  It’s a wonderful ending to this collection of tales.

I love the framing device between the stories, in which we see the pages of a book being turned.  (I didn’t freeze-frame the film while watching, but I did enjoy quickly reading as much of the on-screen text as I could; it added a lovely extra layer to the stories.)  My only surprise in watching this film is that I’d expected the stories to tie together somewhat.  (For instance: I was sure that the man in black who popped up at the end of the first short would re-enter the film in one of the later stories, but that was not to be.)  This film does not unfold with anything approaching the pacing and narrative structure of a standard film, so put those expectations aside when watching this movie.  The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an anthology of separate stories.  There are many thematic links that one can draw to connect these six tales, but plot-wise they each stand on their own.

I love what a unique film this is.  I am thrilled that Netflix supported the Coen Brothers in following their vision to create this film.  As I wrote in my review of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, I don’t know, ultimately, how Netflix’s entry (in such a big way!) into the feature film business will ultimately affect the film industry, for good or ill.  Of course I wish these great films were getting a wider theatrical release.  But Netflix was willing to financially back these talented directors in bringing their films to life, while other studios weren’t!  So we should be thankful that Netflix allowed these films to get made.  And while I am sad to miss the experience of seeing these films in a theatre, I certainly did enjoy the convenience of getting to so easily see them in the comfort of my own home.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a terrific new creation from the Coen Brothers.  The cast is fantastic, and the film is beautifully made.  It’s weird and it’s wonderful.  Check it out.

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