Few major directors of recent memory have become as intimate with the Western as the Coen Brothers. Joel and Ethan Coen have made No Country for Old Men and True Grit, both films playing with the cruelty of chance. Their newest venture, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, is broken into six chapters. Literally taking on the appearance of a book, published in 1873, running over the course of 133 minutes, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is as reliant on life and fate’s brutal eccentricities as No Country for Old Men and True Grit, while incorporating and morphing the reverberations of the Western genre with the Coen brothers’ oddball humor.
Each chapter of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has its own feel, as the Coens don’t confine their stories to one portion of the West. Rather we’re taken through varying states and territories and seasons (though the shots were only done in Nebraska and New Mexico). There’s no star of the film, as each chapter relies on a singular and unique cast. Originally, the film was supposed to be a series of shorts (the present stories were worked on by the Coen’s over the course of 25 years). Oddly, even with the changing states, casts, and seasons, each portion of the sextet profoundly strings to the other.
The first part, entitled ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,’ follows a Cowboy troubadour named Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson). The character is nice, polite, and a sociopath. Known as the San Sabba Songbird, yet described as a “misanthrope,” his warbling voice and strumming guitar belie his lightning quick gun. The Coens achieve a violent milieu, playing off the outlaw genre convention by breaking the fourth wall. Because of it, from the first shot to the last, we trust Buster, even as he’s gunning down people for just being plain impolite. Wearing white, he upends the color coding of the genre. Shot from a low angle, he upends the cliched Western hero.
The second part, ‘Near Algodones,’ stars James Franco as a bank robber and Stephen Root as a teller. The set-up is relatively simple, a young thief comes to a bank in the middle of nowhere.The teller also appears to be a typical Western coot. The segment is relatively short, comparative to the other chapters. But much like ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,’ there is no hero. There’s not even a guarantee of the protagonist succeeding. Instead, there’s greater odds that they’ll fail spectacular through random chance. Such is life.
‘Meal Ticket,’ the third chapter, might be the cruelest of the sextet. An Impresario (Liam Neeson) and his attraction, an actor (Harry Melling) suffering from congenital amputation, traverse from small-town-to-small-town during the dead of winter. The act is a one-man show, the actor giving famous verses from Percy Bysshe Shelley, to ‘The Gettysburg Address,’ to Shakespeare’s sonnets. None of the speeches are particularly entertaining. In fact, they portend downright doom. Both Neeson and Melling provide the strongest acting of the six parts, with no dialogue interaction between them. And as we see the crowds their characters play to dwindle, we observe their precarious existence that lowers their spirits to the brutality of their cold environment. This leads to Neeson’s character making an unthinkable decision.
‘All Gold Canyon’ features the smallest cast of the chapters. Only Tom Waits, playing a prospector, appears for any significant amount of time. The prospector who occupies a beautiful terrain, is in little hurry in his search for gold, and is surely the most lovable of the film’s characters. ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled,’ the fifth portion finds Zoe Kazan playing Alice Longabaugh on a wagon train to the Northwest. It also stars Bill Heck and Grainger Hines.
The final chapter is entitled, ‘The Mortal Remains.’ Five characters occupy a stagecoach. Two are bounty hunters, Thigpin (Jonjo O’Neill) and Irishman (Brendan Gleeson). Three have no business knowing each other, the Lady (Tyne Daly), the Frenchman (Saul Rubinek), and the Trapper (Chelcie Ross). It’s a morbid scene, with an Edgar Allen Poe tone, as riding on top of the carriage is the body of the bounty hunters’ latest kill. However, it’s the Frenchman’s speech that encapsulates the film. “You’ve got to play the hand that you’re dealt,” he says to his companions. That line ties every character together, each person doing the best they can in the moment they can.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs doesn’t reinvent the Western, rather it plays with it, revealing and reveling in its idiosyncrasies. Every paint by numbers character in the genre’s lore is here, but none, even in their limited screen time, are as flat as the Western horizon. Beautifully shot with a rich score from Carter Burwell, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is the Coen’s best film since True Grit.