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.