starring Tyne Daly, James Franco, Brendan Gleeson, Bill Heck
written and directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
by Walter Chaw The Coen Brothers' one-shot revival-in-spirit of DC's "Weird Western Tales," The Ballad of Buster Scruggs features six narratively-unrelated Old West challenges to genre mythology that are so practically effortless, so technically perfect, that the typical Coen payload of misanthropy and, yes, nihilism lands as particularly caustic. Binding each episode in this, a short-story anthology from our most literary filmmakers, is a conversation about how the American myth of self-actualization is indelibly stained by westward expansion, self-justified by the amoral equivocations of Manifest Destiny. It's about the lie of American exceptionalism, riffing on and shading stock hero archetypes like the gunfighter, the outlaw, the travelling troubadour, the prospector, the settlers of course, and the bounty hunter. The presentation is all a bit too much: it's too handsome (Inside Llewyn Davis cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel returns to the fold), too exquisitely choreographed, too...tricky? The moment the brothers frame a POV shot from the inside of a guitar, complete with suddenly-muffled singing and strumming, you realize the movie is maybe having some fun at your expense--that it is maybe, in fact, an asshole. "Misanthrope?" asks Buster (Tim Blake Nelson), reading his crimes off a wanted poster, "I don't hate my fellow man!" Dressed all in "white duds and pleasant demeanour," Buster may not be a misanthrope, but he's definitely an asshole, as well as a psychopath. It's an efficient, devastating dissection of the Gene Autry/Roy Rogers subgenre of western, in which cherub-faced, potato-bloated cowpokes settle land and cattle disputes, woo big-eyed women, and punctuate their acts of questionable heroism with a nice, wholesome tune. Howard Hawks had something to say about this in his brilliant, subversive Rio Bravo. Now the Coens are having a go.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs takes this attitude about our national mythology: the past was awful, blood-soaked, and venal, and the heroes we venerated were mostly psychos and sons-a-bitches. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, non? Each segment sports an air of archness--like a fable from "Tales from the Crypt" that is every bit as colour-drenched and lurid as an EC Comics panel. Like an old EC comic, which would sometimes insert tales that were almost jaunty, the next one is something of a palate-cleanser concerning a hapless bank robber (James Franco) who comes up against a survivor-type teller (Stephen Root) in a bank located in the middle of nowhere. It's a reminder that The Ballad of Buster Scruggs shares more DNA with Raising Arizona in the Coens' portfolio than with True Grit--and more with A Serious Man than either. Not deeply about anything, "Near Algodones" is still an exceedingly clever piece with three beautiful set-pieces: the absurd heist; an interrupted hanging that predicts the climax of "The Gal Who Got Rattled" in its use of Native Americans as daemonic furies; and a bittersweet moment involving a hood, a pretty girl, and a man's wracking sobs. It's the second weakest of the half-dozen, but it's still tremendous.
"Meal Ticket" centres the collection, detailing a series of dates with a limbless travelling performer (Harry Potter's tormentor Dudley Dursley, Harry Melling) and his Impresario (Liam Neeson). From a small stage, the back of their dressed wagon, the nameless Artist recites literary selections, great speeches to various bored, disinterested audiences so isolated that they stay anyway. During his rousing finale, the Artist's interpretation of Lincoln's 272-word Gettysburg Address, the Impresario passes through the "crowd" (sometimes only three people) with his hat in hand. Business is bad, the weather's getting colder. One night, the Impresario hires a whore and backpacks the Artist up to the room with them. She asks if the Artist wants a little lovin', too. The Impresario doesn't think so. But he does turn the Artist towards the wall first. It's a devastating film, a clinical piece that locates the loneliness of the Artist and the hunger of the Impresario. The one doing his best to remain relevant and earn a meal through the fruits of his gifts for speech and interpretation, the other filling the ledgers and coming up ever shorter. Too easy to look at it as simply the plight of the artist in a world of agents, "Meal Ticket" has a moment where the Impresario stands over a ravine on a slick, snow-covered incline and you realize the Artist is doomed should the Impresario lose his footing, and the Artist is doomed should he not.
The Artist opens his show with a recitation of Percy Shelley's "Ozymandias". It's overused but always well-taken, the thought that the things of man are temporary. Taken with the whole of "Meal Ticket," however, the message of the poem assumes multiple meanings. It's not the word that's temporary--the word seems eternal--it's the appreciator of the word that is, and always was, in short supply. There are never enough critical thinkers, always too many Philistines. The fragility of The Artist is a strong metaphor. Scenes where the Impresario feeds the Artist, no words exchanged between them, are almost too painful for their implication. It's fascinating to me that in a piece that's essentially about words, the ones we're most desperate to hear are any that might betray the relationship between The Artist and Impresario. Are they related? Are they ever in conflict? Still, much is conveyed through very little. When the Impresario discovers a crowd gathered around a chicken that can do math and spends all of their savings on it, I knew how it was going to end--it could end in no other way--but I hoped it would be different. The world is unkind to artists. The world is hungry for stupid things. It will eat itself. There is a nobility to eternity and a gross transactionality to the temporary. "Meal Ticket" is so good.
"All Gold Canyon," based on the Jack London story of the same name, is another palate-cleanser, a one-hander with Tom Waits as a grizzled prospector who, through a process of intuition and ingenuity, discovers a vein of gold in an idyllic valley, only to have an opportunistic claim jumper (Sam Dillon) attempt to disrupt the quiet fruitfulness of the prospector's labours. It's instructive to take inventory of the tropes and types the Coens are undermining. The sexiness of the gunslinger reduced to his homicidal impulses and shit-eating slickness; the romance of the bank robber reduced to a moron without a plan acted upon by brutal providence; the self-aggrandizing tales of storytellers and travelling shows found instead to be as opportunistic and predatory as the gunslingers and thieves; and now this, the only tale with a happy ending, suggesting nothing less than the idea that greed actually wins. Good criminals win, banks win, the masses with their middlebrow and worse tastes win (and indeed elect the President), and a man who has given over his life to winning the lottery wins, too. Waits, barely recognizable, is superlative. I saw him in concert once. It was a religious experience. "All Gold Canyon" isn't, and it may be truly good only in context of the greater conversation, but even as the weakest of the sextet, it offers the pleasure of lush, green vistas. It also has the single funniest line and line delivery in the film.
The other standalone masterpiece in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is "The Gal Who Got Rattled," wherein sheltered Alice (Zoe Kazan), travelling via wagon train to marry a stranger, is beset upon by misadventure, leading her maybe into the arms of handsome train guard Billy Knapp (Bill Heck). Damaged by a cloistered upbringing and her association with weak men, Alice is offered salvation in the company of someone who is kind and decent. A war party descends on the train, alas, while Alice is chasing down her nettlesome dog President Pierce, leading to a standoff in which the other train guard, Mr. Arthur, defends her and, mortally, teaches her about the real ugliness of the world. The ability to deny the existence of real evil is a mark of privilege and Alice, indisputably a pleasant and largely uncomplicated heroine, is also indisputably privileged. One could argue that the fact that she doesn't immediately jump at the chance to make a life with Billy speaks to her essential inability to process that this sort of thing doesn't happen every day. What "The Gal Who Got Rattled" is really about, and the title tips it, is what happens when people in positions of extreme privilege are suddenly confronted with the reality that the world is brutal and owes you nothing.
Alice's evolution from hapless accoutrement to sharp-tongued cynic to, finally, fearful prey is an especially personal and familiar tragedy. The journey from innocence to experience is something that happens to everyone, should you survive long enough--then you die afraid and alone. The Coens present the journey as literal and allegorical, the emotional progression of the hero whereby Alice is eased into the larger universe up until the very end when, tragically, she's thrust into it without the breeding or wisdom to survive it. It's a cautionary tale of not just this one person, but of the entire idea of Manifest Destiny and divine right. It's an excoriation of the kind of privilege that allows for a lack of empathy in the plight of others, and the ability to identify any real misfortune (illness, poverty, the bad judgment of not having been born white in the United States, death) as the fault of the victim. It's the ability, in other words, to believe that everything belongs to you by birth. The absolute brilliance of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is its evisceration of the foundational constructs of the United States: the myth of the lone hero, the elevation of the con, the celebration of material and territorial acquisition that was yours to begin with, had you only known to take it. The relationship between Alice and Billy is negotiated as a series of rules and potential legal partnerships, the only difference between this new thing and Alice's arranged marriage being the shy subtext of genuine attraction that moves their formal, stilted courtship along. Too slow, too repressed, too late.
The film ends with a Phantom Carriage ride in "The Mortal Remains," which sees five passengers on a midnight ride taking turns telling tales. The suggestion is that there's something supernatural at play--that the two bounty hunters (Brendan Gleeson and Jonjo O'Neill), with their dead quarry strapped to the roof, might be twin Charons ferrying more than their bounty to some infernal afterlife. It's the intersection of the western with the English Gothic and it wraps up the show with an interesting sense of existential displacement. The world is a black place that rewards bad men for their misdeeds and destroys innocence. Justice is a construct meant to provide order to chaos, a check on the appetites of the voracious and the stupid, but as we've learned over the last two years, the illusion of civilization in these United States is as flimsy now as it was in the Old West, as it ever was and perhaps ever shall be. The only promise as birthright for us is struggle and death--and until that day, being haunted by missed opportunities, ruined by our mortal hesitations and bad decisions, and broken by the teeny tiny glimpses of eternity that great art and the occasional accidental grace of others provide. We are the architects of our own sagas of despair; we are supporting characters in everyone else's sad stories and unfulfilled aspirations. I've tried a lot to figure out who the Coens are in our culture. They're great literary critics, but they're also the biggest jerks since Billy Wilder. Maybe the two go hand-in-hand. Maybe as legacies go, being this generation's Billy Wilder ain't bad...