THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (Coen, 2018)
Netflix, Release Date Nov 16, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long
The singing cowboy Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) has numerous “nicknames, handles, appellations, and cognomens.” Some folks call him “The Harbinger of Death.” His own wanted poster dubs him “The Misanthrope” which Buster deems unfair; he greatly prefers to be known as “The San Saba Songbird” or, in a pinch, “The West Texas Tit.”
Buster, a murderous Looney Tunes character made flesh, is a crack shot, but there's reason to question his judgment in other matters, despite his sunny disposition and his impeccable white clothes. After he has disposed of the gambler Surly Joe (Clancy Brown) by “downright Archimedean” means, Buster entertains the entire saloon by celebrating Joe's death with a song and dance routine. Shortly after Buster belts out the prediction that his latest victim “won't be missed by anyone,” Surly Joe's brother (Danny McCarthy) appears on the scene to prove otherwise, cradling the corpse and sobbing “We've lost him!” Unmoved by this sincere display of grief, the crowd continues to hoot and holler at Buster's show-stopping number which, to be fair, is truly sensational.
Buster's faulty assessment plays to me like an oblique response to General William Westmoreland's infamous claim during the Vietnam War that “The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as a Westerner.” I'm not claiming that the Coens intended that, though I've heard tell that some critics have already interpreted Buster as a symbol of American military intervention.
I'd rather let the movie sit for a few months before making any similar claims, but what's clear is that the West depicted in the movie is no place for the sensitive or the vulnerable, for anyone who does put a high price on life. Surly Joe's brother, for example, doesn't last long after his genuine expression of sorrow, courtesy of Buster who dispatches him swiftly, though not painlessly. And Buster's the white-clad singing cowboy hero.
Structured as six short films (if you love Buster, better enjoy him before he's gone) with no direct narrative connection, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” frequently underscores the plight of those who simply “don't belong” in this hardscrabble frontier. In “The Gal Who Got Rattled” segment, a single woman (Zoe Kazan, absolutely flawless) heading west with a wagon train must rely on the kindness of strangers for her very survival. Said kindness turns out to be surprisingly abundant and yet may still not be sufficient, not for someone who just shouldn't there in the first place.
A more haunting example of this theme manifests in “The Meal Ticket” segment. A gruff impresario (Liam Neeson) barnstorms tiny frontier towns with his star attraction, a quadruple amputee Artist (Harry Melling, delicate and ethereal, like an ancestor of Edward Scissorhands). Belted into a makeshift chair on a tiny portable stage, The Artist entertains crowds by reciting great speeches and poems: “I met a traveler from an antique land...” Crowds? Well, at first maybe, but Old West America is about as interested in culture as is 21st century America. Once the new “freak” show loses his shock appeal, Neeson's businessman must decide how to best invest his money and time to adapt to fickle public tastes. The Artist, of course, will not be asked for his input.
An excessive focus on the commonalities risks ignoring the distinct pleasures of each stand-alone story. And there is perhaps no greater pleasure in the movie than watching Tom Waits embody the ultimate grizzled prospector, a near-solo performance of stubborn digging and cantankerous muttering, his eyes ever on the golden prize he calls Mr. Pocket. I've always loved Waits as an actor from his work with Jim Jarmusch, but he outdoes himself, and just about everyone else this year, in a virtuoso physical performance.
If forced to select the weakest of the stories, I'd probably choose the one in which James Franco plays a hapless bank robber. But this segment still offers some of the movie's best moments, including an eccentric turn by Stephen Root as a tough bank teller and perhaps the film's funniest line, when Franco, sent to the gallows for a second time (long story), turns to a fellow condemned prisoner about to get the noose, and, with a friendly smile, asks “First time?”
The Coens are, of course, masters of the medium by now, and “Buster Scruggs” showcases all of their usual strengths. Always adept at idiosyncratic dialogue and long-winded speeches, they are at complete ease with the quirky argot of the Old West. We witnessed that in “True Grit,” of course, but if you thought they were coasting on Charles Portis's words, well, they weren't.
The impeccably-cast film features great performances from top line names to veteran character actors: in the film's final and most mythic segment, Chelcie Ross may deliver the best monologue of all as an uncouth trapper sharing his life's philosophy (“People are like ferrets...”) In the space of six stories, “Buster Scruggs”covers the gamut from cartoon hilarity to classic tragedy, from quiet stretches to serial verbosity, from the wide open plains to the cramped quarters of a passenger carriage racing through the mist-shrouded night with a coachman who never stops before his destination.
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is currently available on Netflix, and is playing in select theaters. Here's hoping Netflix will see fit to give the movie a proper Blu-ray release.