The Ballad of Buster Scruggs review: Coen brothers underline simplicity of storytelling in this Old West anthology
In The Coen Brothers' The Ballad of Buster Scruggs movie review, the charge of misanthropy and a large pall of doom hang over all the characters and stories
castLiam Neeson, James Franco, David Krumholtz, Clancy Brown, Zoe Kazan
directorEthan Coen, Joel Coen
The Coen Brothers boast a bewilderingly eclectic filmography. In a career spanning over three decades, they’ve mined the bounteous American cinema to create an oeuvre that remains unparalleled in its audacity, craftsmanship and sheer, wry viewing pleasure. Their work is wholly capable of being independent and mordantly commercial at the same time. Noir, screwball comedy, gangster film, thriller; they’ve been there, done that, and more often than not successfully. Critical darlings who possess a massive cult following, they can pull the biggest stars or create new ones, give them a bad haircut, make them run around America and end up with an Oscar.
However, they’ve long been accused of engendering a peculiar brand of misanthropy in their films. Not that it distracts from the crystalline, chewable quality of their writing or the majestic cinematography that pushes their narratives. But their protagonists often remain outliers, almost like their own existence within the industry, firmly entrenched in a shade of grey. In their latest anthology film, originally planned as a series of six separate episodic stories, this charge of misanthropy and a large pall of doom hang over all the characters and stories.
The first story lays the groundwork for the rest of the film. A balladeer of the Old West, mid-song and astride his horse, comes into view, enters a small town and tears away a wanted notice in his name where he is referred to as The Misanthrope. That the Coen brothers give us a shot of the sky from the point of view of the inside of the balladeer’s guitar before revealing the notice indicates their intention clear as the light in the film’s noonday. A simple story about a figure ceaselessly romanticised in countless Western novels and films follows. He is as blessed with the gun as he is with song and repartee. Nothing new there. But the Coens sprinkle such hilarious dialogue into this story that one cannot help but break into comic seizures. It is surely among their most memorable comic outings. The story ends on a zany note, the old is replaced by the new, death spreads its mournful wings and we can feel being carefully prepared for a gradual slide into a darker territory.
In fact, over the following five stories, the notion of the gradation of the old and yielding to the new features quite prominently. Often, the stories even run the risk of appearing to be derivative, plodding and worst, simple. The second story, for instance, seems like a long build-up to a punchline. But I believe that’s the key to this film.
The Coens’ work has always drawn from the grand movie heritage of their country, the Western being an indelible part of it. There are few things more glaringly anachronistic in the Western than the skewed idea of justice and often the sheer ignorance of the bloodletting that led to the Western expansion in America. There have been many attempts to revise the western and challenge its shoddy, unjust ideals and moral cacophony. The work of Anthony Mann and Robert Altman is a case in point.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs isn’t a revisionist Western by any means. However, the simplicity it seems to avow is misleading as well. The Coens, in one story after another, often utilising jokes or stories that seem like a long joke, poke at the foundling skeleton of the Western, throw a pall of death above it, announce its death knell like a gong in the distance and, in an exceptionally strange final story for an anthology like this, literally have their characters choose to go under the bus. Does the fact that this film was co-produced by Netflix now ring a peculiar bell? To top it all, the first shot of the film shows an old, hardbound book of Western short stories that opens to set the film in motion. TBOBS is film nostalgia but isn’t configured to leave a sweet aftertaste at all.
Joel and Ethan Coen, perhaps more than anything else, are exceptionally clever film artisans. Hitting the beats with masterful regularity in their writing and editing, their manipulation of the viewer is an art in itself. If they were to take their films apart piece by piece, breaking them down to the smallest nuts and bolts, you will still be able to notice the absurd liveliness that throbs in them. Here, however, you remain susceptible to being pulled away by the simplicity of the story to such a degree that you may miss the magical concoctions that underlie it. That’s because they aren’t pulling any tricks. You don’t trick death. It tricks you. They appear to be saying. And that it comes, because it will, often taking the innocent first, perhaps even painfully quietly.
So they tell you the story of a gold digger out to make a killing all by himself on a verdant piece of land, spoiling it forever with his ambition, greed and belief in destiny. Nature plays a mute witness to his act, and takes over only once he leaves, a bit bruised but going on nonetheless. A man who escapes the hangman’s noose once finds himself facing that possibility once again. A woman simply wants to migrate from one place to another; just leave the old world behind. But it won’t be as simple as it seems. Finally, the banter and arguments of five people inside a coach driven by a shadowy coachman through the night. Now that the world is changing, the Coens seem to be saying, this is what you and I are going to miss. The apparent simplicity of storytelling, the pleasure of the conventional and the reliability of a joke.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs will never be celebrated as being among the Coens’ best work. But that’s not what they set out to do in the first place. When it hits Netflix in November and we scroll down to it after browsing through a hundred different options, it will be there to remind us of what we left behind, without ever discouraging us from moving forward. Because sometimes it is the best thing to do.
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