The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen
The career path of most film directors is usually something like this: they start by making a few shorts (or music videos, adverts or TV work) before they get the big break: a feature film. And if they prove successful feature directors that‘s their future, perhaps with a TV shown thrown in from time to time. But very few go back to the roots – one of the rare occasions you see established directors make short film is in omnibus films, such as Paris, je t‘aim, where we can actually see one of the Coen brothers most entertaining film, proving they‘re just as adept in short films as in features.
There were also signs they were dying to make some more shorts in their previous feature film, Hail, Ceasar! which is really a collection of sketches of short films, within a long film that they seemed less interested in then all those short sketches within it. So now they finally went all the way and made six short films in one: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The longer version of the title is more fitting though; The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Other Tales of the American Frontier, since the title ballad only takes about a tenth of the running time.
There are at least three things running through all of those six stories: they all take place in the wild west, death is always nearby and they all begin and end with a hand flipping through a book – and since most of you will probably be watching this on Netflix it’s certainly worth freeze framing some of those moments to read the literary version of the beginning and the end of each story.
Their distinctive style is always present to some degree, yet the films are vastly different, the brothers seemed determined to try out different styles and themes from the western genre, which is a logical decision – if they’d all been in the same style it would have made sense to simply to one story. The Coens have always swung from being wildly surreal and towards toning it down in more earthbound films such as No Country for Old Men, Inside Llewyn Davis and True Grit, their first pure western, where the bizarreness is an addition to often more serious tales.
The film starts with two stories from the previous category, two funny vignettes about the folly of your average gunslinger. First there is the title tale, that takes the surrealism all the way, but loses it’s footing slightly by the end – and then comes “Near Algodones,” which really is about 2-3 good punchlines, with little of note in between.
The central parts of the film however are its crowning achievement, including the two best segments.“Meal Ticket” is about a man without any limbs, who is a master storyteller and his agent, a black-toothed Liam Neeson. They travel around in a horse carriage that can be changed into a tiny theatre, which they use to perform for the townspeople in increasingly more rural areas. There Harrison the limbless recites texts by Shelley and Shakespeare, bible verses and the Gettysburg address. Eventually they get competition from a chicken who can do maths – reminding us that the era of artists competing with Youtube videos of cute animals is really nothing new. Yet what really stays with you are those odd and strangely beautiful scenes of that tiny oddball theatre in the middle of nowhere, where a man can keep your attention with words alone, since that’s all he’s got left.
I could also mention about how gorgeous the landscape looks – but the most glorious landscape shots belong to the next chapter, “All Gold Canyon.” We’re now in a west that is truly wild. By looking at the deer and the squirrels and the owl go fearlessly about their business we simply feel that they’ve never been disturbed by a single human. DoP Bruno Delbonnell certainly has some great nature shots in all six stories – but this scene is his masterpiece.
But then we hear humming – and that’s when the peace is out, the first gold digger has arrived. Yet even if that spells misfortune for the animals it only means joy for the viewer, since the gold digger is played by Tom Waits himself in a role that is tailor made for the old crooner. He’s alone with nature, chatting with himself and humming some tunes – or rather, talking to Mr. Pocket, the source of gold he believes to be up there somewhere. Stories of gold digging tend to be indictments on capitalism and greed – but for that kind of story you should really rather look at the previous story, “Meal Ticket.” This tale is more concerned about the solitude of man, alone with the elements and himself. Exactly what he’s doing while humming in a raspy voice is less important.
The film ends with two of the longest stories. The penultimate story, “The Gal Who Rattled,” seems to be the favourite of many, perhaps because it’s the closest we get to the classical structure of a feature. Personally, I felt it was uneven – but the central romance is unusually charming, they are both very polite and formal, yet also very honest at the same time, in their search for love. Unfortunately, for the second time in those tales we have an Indian attack – and both scenes are disappointing, since the natives only appear as a threat to the white man, barbarians who attack without any apparent reason. And I just got to say, sorry, dear Coens, but this was a cheap trick in the 20th Century and it’s even cheaper now.
The final chapter then wraps it all up nicely and reminds us that Edgar Allan Poe inhabited this wild west, just like the cowboys. The film takes place almost entirely on a stagecoach where five very different people have gathered. It seems they haven’t quite mastered the polite silence today’s public transport usually offers and the outcome is a eerie yet fascinating character study, where a rough hermit and hunter, a French gentleman, a stiff-upper lipped society lady and two man hunters take turns in upsetting each other.
That’s how it ends, in the moonlight that glistens as the man hunters tell tales of killing while they sing hauntingly melancholic and morbid songs, while the hermit shocks the society lady and the Frenchman tries to keep the peace. And just like in all the other tales you ask yourself: who will survive this trip?
Text: Ásgeir H Ingólfsson