"We all love hearing about ourselves. So long as the people in the stories are us, but not us."
Considering that the American Dream is such a pervasive theme throughout their filmography, it is somewhat surprising that the Coen Brothers have only made one traditional western prior to 2018, and a remake at that. Obviously one could argue that films like ‘No Country for Old Men’ or even ‘Fargo’ display some strong western motifs but in terms of the quintessential western pastiche, ‘True Grit’ remains their only foray into the genre. Until now that is, however this being the Coens there is still nothing traditional about their latest effort.
Telling six tales of life and death in the old west, an array of characters and incidents are on display within this anthology collection. From a singing outlaw (Tim Blake Nelson) to a botched bank robber (James Franco), from an aging impresario (Liam Neeson) to a grizzled prospector (Tom Waits), from a young woman journeying across the prairie (Zoe Kazan) to a stagecoach filled with five strangers.
Perhaps my favourite quality of the Coens is the range of emotions their movies, as well as their career as a whole, are able to encapsulate. From the tragic to the comic and everything that falls between, the duo often weave stories of such brutal violence yet bizarre beauty that it is hard not to stare in awe at their tonal command. ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ inherently has more opportunity to reach across this emotional spectrum, since the stories (despite being linked by time and environment) are all separate narratives in their own right. Any one of them could have functioned individually as a short film, but when told in this order they paint a surreal portrait of exactly how the Coens view the old west and the stories that came from it.
‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ features the Coens at their funniest, but also at their most haunting. The opening tale which gives the film its name features some of the best and most bizarre physical comedy the directing duo have delivered in many years. But then the third segment, titled ‘Meal Ticket’, is one of the most silently harrowing narratives I have seen Joel and Ethan ever recite. Its implications and imagery have stayed with me long after it and the film was over.
In fact one thing I can say as a testament to how strong the storytelling and command of craft is here that all six stories have at least one aspect that still lingers in my mind. Though some are certainly stronger than others they all leave a lasting impression and strike a perfect balance between the abstract and the realistic. Some are remarkable for that they say about the human condition and the metaphorical weight they carry, others find value in the intimate and grounded drama they display.
Another benefit to the Coens crafting an anthology film is that it allows them to fill an array of parts with gifted character actors. With what was already a keen talent for assembling terrific ensemble casts, here the brothers have assembled six separate microcosms, each one of which is cast perfectly. Going through each one would be too lengthy, so instead I shall just list the absolute standouts of the group. Zoe Kazan evokes such poignant empathy through her performance that it’s impossible not to be endeared by the plight of her character. Tim Blake Nelson is comically brilliant as the titular Buster Scruggs. Harry Melling gives a haunting performance that is low on dialogue but high on soliloquies. I was also pleasantly surprised by how nuanced Tom Waits was in a performance that is essential to how affecting the segment ‘All Gold Canyon’ is.
‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ marks the second occasion on which the Coens are not working with their usual director of photography Roger Deakins. But before you despair, rest assured that Bruno Delbonnel manages to create a striking and picturesque palette in his own right. Having coloured ‘Inside Llewyn David’ so beautifully, it’s gratifying to see him use that same monochromatic technique applied to six different stories which works wonders to create six highly distinct atmospheres. The harsh winter of ‘Meal Ticket’ seems worlds away from the lush green valleys in ‘All Gold Canyon’.
I can sympathise with those who may find the stories within ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ to be too obtuse, over indulgent and lacking in depth. They are all fairly simplistic on a narrative level (even more so if you were to break them down on paper), but the way the Coens frame them against the western backdrop bestows them with a huge sense of weight. The outline around each story also makes it clear that they are fables, valued for their simplicity and strong core messages. Perhaps the Coens greatest statement in this film is to comment upon the very nature of stories themselves. They note that the ones which last might not endure for their depth or multitudes, but instead for their most basic themes and empathetic characters.
An ambitious and sprawling anthology that can be ridiculously comical whilst also being harrowingly heart breaking, this is a western that is purely Coen-esque to every degree.