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Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

We are introduced to a book which opens to a story, and as the film progresses, the pages turn to a new story, then another, and another. What will this new story entail you may ask, and what’s within these pages you are about to see? All will be revealed, yet the central mystery will remain as is so often the case when dealing in a Coen Brothers universe, and their new film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is no exception.

The film is actually an anthology of shorts all within the western genre. Each short is tonally different with no interconnection, other than the book which is introduced and is used to transition from one story to the next.

Think of it as sitting by a fire with a collection of short stories written by Mark Twain by way of Cormac McCarthy, and you might get the idea of the film’s overall feel. At times it ventures into parody and over the top comedy, while other times it turns stark, and cold, yet each entry has a tragic-comic familiarity to it with death looming over each tale.

The Coens are familiar with the idea of death, as it plays a part in all of their films, yet The Ballad of Buster Scruggs feels like their most explicit examination of it of it since their Oscar-winning masterpiece No Country for Old Men in 2007. Death comes in all shapes in sizes in the film, sometimes swiftly, sometimes shockingly, and even philosophically. It can be seen as something fearful, or something peaceful, while other times, it’s like a cruel joke that doesn’t play fair.

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Of the shorts, the titles include the actual The Ballad of Buster Scruggs which opens the film and stars Tim Blake Nelson as the title character, a Gene Autry singing cowboy type sporting a down home smile, and duded up in pearly white threads. Yet this singing cowboy seems to have a deadly aim which seems more suited to a Sergio Leone Spaghetti western. Afterwards is the slightest short entitled “Near Algodones” and stars James Franco as a bank robber who escapes the noose, only to find himself back in it again, and features an ending that feels like a bittersweet punchline.

The third and perhaps coldest short in its execution, is entitled “Meal Ticket” and stars Liam Neeson as a man who runs a travelling road show featuring a Shakespearean actor with no legs and no arms, who is billed as “The Great Orator”. There is little dialogue through this film, except for a few isolated moments, and also when the Orator is on stage, and is perhaps one of the darkest offerings the Coens have ever produced which is saying a lot.

The fourth is a rather warmer affair entitled “All Gold Canyon” which is almost a full one-man show featuring Tom Waits as an old gold prospector. After finding small pieces of gold, he begins digging for his claim which he actually gives a name to calling it “Mr. Pockets”. It’s a nice showcase for Waits who fits in beautifully with The Coens’ mentality, and they even give him a a moment to sing a song, I mean, who doesn’t want to hear Tom Waits sing in a movie?

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The fifth is perhaps the longest tale entitled “The Gal who Got Rattled” and stars Zoe Kazan who loses her brother in a wagon train and begins a budding romance with one of the wagon masters played by Bill Heck. The story is filled with irony and coincidence, and given that it starts off as a coy love story (which is something refreshing in a Coens film) we have the hint that it will end tragically.

The final short brings us full circle in the tale entitled “The Mortal Remains” and features a stagecoach of strangers and each one pondering the questions of life and death.  It is soon revealed that two of the passengers are in fact bounty hunters on their way to deliver their package, making the journey feel more like a final destination of sorts. In this short, The Coens become rather blatant, which is rather unusual for them.

Listening to the dialogue, it becomes somewhat clear about their mission statement regarding death, and why the Coens themselves seem so preoccupied with it in their films. For them it remains utterly fascinating, yet ultimately mysterious.

The films themselves weave together to make a favorable tapestry of highly different, yet thematically similar stories.  In fact this might be the perfect Coen brothers film for critics of their varying degrees of tone, as there is something in here for everyone. For those who enjoy the relative soberness of “No Country for Old Men” or “Blood Simple”, to the broader cartoonish quality of “Raising Arizona” and “O Brother Where Art Thou?”, it’s a wonderful mixture of genres and sub-genres alike.

As with all of The Coens films, we get the stunning visuals and perfect compositions of shots all of which are brought to life by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel who also worked for them on “Inside Llewyn Davis”. There is also the broadly arranged  score by Carter Burwell who has provided music for most of their films since “Blood Simple”. The artistry working within the film is rather a sight to behold, as each short always looks different from the next, illustrating the versatility of storytelling at work here.

As with all of the Coens’ films, they prove themselves to not only be ace craftsmen but probably the best wordsmiths working today. The dialogue is rich with clever wordplay,  and lovely anecdotes, some of which should be seen again just to fully appreciate the rich texture and the on point dialects made by each actor.

The Coens have a knack for creating full worlds with a wealth of characters who move in and out of frame sometimes lingering, but sometimes moving along, but each leaving an indelible mark to the proceedings. The care they give to each moment, big or small is lovingly woven into the overall texture of the film, making it very tactile and real, no matter how absurd it sometimes gets.

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When dealing with a subject such as death, The Coens create a rather violent atmosphere, and we as viewers are constantly kept on our toes. We aren’t quite sure how death will arrive as it never becomes clear, and occasionally it might hit a character that might not always deserve it.

However along with that sadness, the film is peppered with moments of grace, mostly with the use of music and singing. Music often comes into play, and is sometimes seen as a thing of comfort for the dead and to the Coens it might be the only spiritual thing to find in a mostly Godless world.

I found these serene moments to be quite touching and warm and should waver off the constant criticisms about the Coens being cold or cruel directors. On the contrary, we get the sense they really care for the people in their stories, but it’s only life itself that can be cruel, and unfeeling sometimes. They merely show us this cruelty in a rather artful and entertaining way, as if they can’t quite understand it, but they try to anyway with their films.

Part of the joy of “Buster Scruggs” is how it feels like the film equivalent of sitting down by a fire, with a book in your hand, full of tall tales, folk songs, and western myths. It’s a film that takes its time in that respect, and though they are stories full of dour consequences, we are reminded that they are just stories, and meant to be enjoyed that way. Yet there is always a new mystery to be found with each story, and we’re not quite sure what to expect with each turning of the page. Someday maybe that mystery will reveal itself, but if it’s a Coen Brothers’ story, let’s just hope we’re not dead by the end of it.

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