The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen. Starring Zoe Kazan, Tom Waits, Tim Blake Nelson

If the six segments of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs are meant to cohere, then it’s as six distinct pieces of the various types of the western genre. It hits on virtually all of them from gunmen to highwaymen, wagon trails (why anyone lets Zoe Kazan go to Oregon at this point is beyond me) to stagecoaches, and treasure-seekers from all along the spectrum of desperation. Take a deep whiff of the movie and you can the intermixing aromas of Mark Twain on his blackest day, Bret Harte on his preachiest, and Jack London on his simplest. It takes much less to smell the disappointing stench of a perspective on Native Americans which is pre-Dances with Wolves bad: in the quest to make the Indians the screaming savages of Stagecoach, we never even get to soft racism. On the whole, not all of this movie works. The wires show in “The Mortal Remains,” “Near Algodones” is a little terse, and “All Gold Canyon” is never better than just fine. And yet the whole experience is fairly exhilarating for its unevenness; Buster Scruggs has already staked out its position as one of the most interesting westerns of the 21st Century. Whether or not its distributor will hold it back from attaining that status, much less its awards season credibility, is a question for another day.

“The Gal Who Got Rattled” is probably the best of the movie’s sections, and is probably the only one that could stand up as a feature film. (That it’s the longest of the six certainly helps.) Alice Longabaugh (Kazan) is neither aged harpy nor Calamity Jane, and so is exactly the type of woman who tends to falter in this particular genre much to its detraction. Her parents are out of the picture, which means her brother, Gilbert (Jefferson Mays) can dictate her future. Alice is not as stupid as Gilbert, and after his sudden death she is simultaneously freed from his machinations and constrained with a considerable financial debt. More than once she confides that Gilbert was not the businessman that he believed himself to be, was much too confident in his own abilities, and had plans for her future she would not have wished upon herself. The marriage to a fellow entrepreneur in the Willamette Valley was one such plan, and she is visibly relieved to be rid of that possibility. Alice and the trail leaders, Knapp (Bill Heck) and Arthur (Grainger Hines) accidentally bury Gilbert while he’s still wearing his money, don’t put up a marker, and realize later that night what they’ve done; the problem, of course, is that Gilbert has promised the guy taking care of the Longabaugh oxen an exorbitant wage. (Arthur’s terse “It’s a high price” is the “We’re not a bank, Jerry” of Buster Scruggs.) From there it’s fairly clear what will have to happen to Alice, and when Knapp does offer himself as a husband, the initial thrust is dangerously close to straight prostitution: he’ll cover her brother’s debts if she’ll marry him. It’s not really as bad as it sounds, since Alice and Knapp have been circling each other since Gilbert died anyway; all the same, Buster Scruggs is not shy about making it clear just what a lone woman faced in a time when economics were thought beyond her position. The segment’s ending—i.e., the rattling—is reflective of the more violent end of that spectrum, a culmination of what could have happened to Louise Platt in Stagecoach if they hadn’t killed John Carradine just in time. It’s also entirely the fault of Arthur, a taciturn man who scares Alice to death about what the Indians might do to her with his longest and most emotional speech of the movie.

The most interesting and arguably least successful of the segments is “The Mortal Remains,” which begins in medias res to disorient its characters more than the viewers. An Englishman and an Irishman (Jonjo O’Neil and Brendan Gleeson) sit on one side of a stagecoach, while a Frenchman (Saul Rubinek), a covenanted wife (Tyne Daly) and a trapper (Chelcie Ross) sit on the other. The light is unnaturally green for the majority of the section, turning to a deep blue almost instantaneously once the sun sets, flooding the screen with the color of drowning. (A little Dylan Thomas? “Time held me green and dying/Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”) The stagecoach is, for such contained space, cozy without becoming claustrophobic. Restricted movement creates a faintly hypnotic spell, especially considering the internationally stereotyped cast of characters: the cheery Englishman, the soulful Irishman (bossed around by the limey), the fussy American bourgeois, the kooky American pioneer, the cynical Frenchman. A conversation strikes up about the two types of people; the bourgeois says there are the saved and the sinners, where the pioneer argues otherwise. There are no two types of people, he says. People are like ferrets. The Coens could play this for farce, but they eventually bring the simmer down to the barest heat, using the almost tuneless singing of Gleeson to pare down the action even further. The story shifts again once the gentlemen from the British Isles reveal their jobs: they are bounty hunters of a sort. That they are angels of death is clear even before that euphemism is laid out, and from there the story hazily drifts into the limbo of unreality. Not all of it is effective—I wish the coach had not stopped at the hotel—but it’s a well-made example of tone in a short film, and one that caps off Buster Scruggs intelligently. So much of the movie is obsessed with death, and especially with the near chances people have. The film’s best line is uttered by James Franco’s drifter who is about to be hanged for one crime, cheats death, and is hanged for another he never meant to commit. The man next to him blubbers on the scaffold; “First time?” the drifter asks. The prospector of “All Gold Mountain” is shot in the back, waits, and rises from his presumed death to fire fatally on his assailant; this doesn’t even consider the death of this unsullied land as it’s mined by a single relentless prospector. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is practically a first-person shooter.

The entire movie is particularly Coen Brothers-y, but of all the sections “The Meal Ticket” is the one that stands out most as characteristic. The repetition is effective, albeit with diminishing returns; the initial performance of “Ozymandias,” which has rather been having a pop culture moment over the past decade or so, is remarkable. The Gettysburg Address, which is the penultimate recital of each performance, is one of those amusing little touches for the jingoistic, proud postwar audience. The performer (Harry Melling) and his handler (Liam Neeson) have no relationship to speak of with each other; the latter sets up the former for each performance, the “Wingless Thrush” declaims, the manager collects some coins, and they move on to the next town, hopeful of some profit after a night’s show. The best crowd in “The Meal Ticket” is the first, and the worst is the last. The performer has no arms or legs, but in other respects is entirely normal; in one fabulous sequence, the manager hauls him up the stairs on a sort of backpack as the performer grimaces, perhaps out of embarrassment or more likely out of pain. For the rube audience, the language he speaks so beautifully is far less interesting than his freak show bona fides, and the problem with the act is that there are, even in the distant mountain towns, stranger freaks to see. The section’s denouement is brought about when the manager, hard-headed and hard-hearted, makes a decision about whether to choose a new freak or keep the old. It ends more or less as one would expect, and in this, one of the most silent and certainly the most austere of the Buster Scruggs chapters, the Coens find their theme: life is cheap.

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