Who’s in it? Liam Neeson, James Franco, Tom Waits, Bill Heck, Tim Blake Nelson.
Will Appeal to: The Coen Brothers fanatics, Worshippers of Extremes and Violence, Goths, Western Aficionados, the Artsy, Hipsters.
The Basics: One sort of wonders where auteurs like The Coen Brothers (Fargo, No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski) would fit in this modern age of NetFlix. The Answer: They’d fit in comfortably like Cinderella-shoes!“How?” you’d ask. Just go see this new venture from The Coen Brothers. There’s a lot of appeal in this one to appease both hardcore Coen Brothers fans and mainstream viewers looking for a quick-fix on NetFlix.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a death-drenched anthology of six Western stories that deal with, well, death amongst other topical themes. At its core, the film is a fun blend of the darkly lyrical, a tad philosophical, and perversely grim mix that The Coen Brothers are known for. Their impulsive fixation on morbid humor and death runs through the blood-red veins of all six stories and are depicted in the guise of comic musicals and sharp satires. What sets The Coen Brothers apart from pulpish peers like Quentin Tarantino and Roberto Rodriguez is their fine literary bent and a real-as-hell darkness in their characters which can be seen very well in this anthology too.
What it’s about: The six stories in this anthology have two basic things in common: Death and The Wild West. Macho cowboys saddling horses, violent deaths, and damsels-in-distress form the crux of this anthology.
The first story, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is the story of the fastest gunslinger in the west who, though honest and pragmatic, must confront his ego and zeal in a French-occupied town. Tim Blake Nelson scores a fine comic performance as Buster Scruggs, a man consumed by solitary wanton ego and a self-conscious hard-hitting good guy image.
The James Franco starrer “Near Algodones” follows a comic suit and serves a wallop of fun-filled twists in a story of a heist-gone-wrong and the karmic punishment that follows. Longshots of the camera through dusty, sunburnt lenses showcase some very fine cinematography.
“Meal Ticket” is the darkest of the lot here, and tells the story of a traveling impresario (Liam Neeson) and his “meal-ticket”– a limbless philosophical orator (a convincing Harry Melling) with a death-fixation. A whiz-chicken that can do math like a pro, unbalances Neeson and a dark turn follows. It’s got a Goth ambience to it and Harry Melling (you should remember him from the Harry Potter films) as the limbless orator conjures up the most haunting presence in the anthology.
“All Gold Canyons” showcases a solo Tom Waits in a Castaway-ish role and is an episode of optimism in the film, and though very dark itself, leads to a cheerful finale that does leave one reeling though. Tom Waits scores a pitch–perfect performance in the role of the grumpy old protagonist and his gruff-as-hell voice echoes a perfect picture of a man hardened by age and circumstances.
“The Gal Who got Rattled” is a tragedy of epic proportions and tells of a naïve young girl (Zoe Kazan) who loses her brother, her sole family, and is sheltered by a handsome shaggy man (Bill Heck) on the Oregon trail. Love ensues, hearts are lit, and then hearts are broken as tragedy follows in this bleak Greek romance.
The final tale “The Mortal Remains” is a final dance with death in a swaggerly fashion as four people in a stagecoach share their views on life and death, love and loss, and the past and the present, and come to terms with their fate. The whole episode is shot almost inside the stagecoach and the soundtrack by Carter Burwell sounds a final climax which is a lush crescendo of turmoiled emotions.
The Coen Brothers are fixated with mortality as usual and explore death in a way that shows us how it is a fateful, unpredictable event that can happen to the best and worst of people. There is no certainty in life and death, and it is evil, and it is inescapable and forlorn.
The Verdict: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was one of the better films of 2018 and The Coen Brothers are on a run-of-form. After the lightly cerebral breeze that was “Hail Caesar”, they’ve hit the higher notes of violence and the macabre in this tell-tale yarn. Their dusty, scorching, sunburnt atmosphere is a perfect setting for equally scorched characters who have to confront equally scorched fates. Go see this now!