The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
December 20, 2018
Tim Blake Nelson
2 Hrs., 13 Mins.
he title of the new project from Joel and Ethan Coen, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, is a simulacrum of sorts. Yes, the film is technically about a man called Buster Scruggs, and a funereal song is certainly a major part of his story. But this is just one feature at play in the film at large. The movie, which recently debuted on Netflix, is an anthology piece encompassing six shorts. All of them are set in a romantic-cum-pessimistic vision of the Old
West. The first in the series bears the same namesake, and is about a rat-eyed, lizard-toothed gunslinger (Tim Blake Nelson) who throatily sings sad songs between kills. The short’s name stems not necessarily from a literal ballad, but from the fact that, at the end of the story, his tenure as the West’s master bad guy is interrupted by another who speaks the “this town ain’t big enough for the two of us” adage into existence.
The other stories, which resemble the mottled, epigrammatic tales popularized by the authors O. Henry and Raymond Carver, vary in tone, but remaining a constant is how they undergird misanthropy. The second, “Near Algodones,” is a cynical, ironic tale of a cowboy (James Franco) who tries to rob a bank in the middle of nowhere but is thwarted, then ruined. The third, “Meal Ticket,” revolves around a limbless would-be actor (Harry Melling) who is taken from town to town by a woebegone promoter (Liam Neeson) to recite Shakespeare. The last, “The Mortal Remains,” is a piece of gothic, Sartre-like existential horror more creepy than frightening.
I found the movie to be most effective when pandering to the simple or the slightly more ambitious. I was taken with “All Gold Canyon,” which is mostly devoid of dialogue and stars the grizzled Tom Waits as a prospector roaming around an untouched, heavenly valley, looking for gold. I was similarly enamored of “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” which is the longest of the stories and stars Zoe Kazan as a young woman whose experience moving from Oregon via wagon train is a disaster, to put it lightly. But the front-runner, in my eyes, is the previously mentioned “Meal Ticket,” which is so efficiently chilly and glum that it would, I think, make Ingmar Bergman’s spirit shiver.
These stories, all encapsulating the lawlessness of the Old West, feel made for the now. In the Coens’ storytelling does there seem to be an obvious connection to how loudly injustices — particularly those beckoned out of the woodwork by those ensnared in the political system — are either unchecked or little cared-about. The most obvious connecting point, to me, is “All Gold Canyon”: Late in the short, the prospector gets unwanted company, and, in order to retain the power he’s currently holding over the gold-slaked valley, the law is axed. Whatever must be done to maintain preeminence must be done. There will be no consequences.
The shorts are independently good, some exceptional. Whether they really cohere to make a great saga is another story, though. The Coens are mostly going for dark comedy here — the vaguely screwball kind, which was found in appreciated flashes during their last movie, Hail, Caesar! (2016), is accursed — which surfeits a handful but not all of the tales. But, then again, an omnibus feature that actually harmonizes is something of a legendary creature. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, then, might be considered akin to a sighting. B