Scalding Hot Takes: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
I don’t remember much about my eighteen years as a professional full time film critic. Mostly what I remember is the sadistic imitation ritual. In order to join the fraternity of film critics, you first had to endure a beat-down where established film critics viciously attacked an aspiring film critic until they’ve successfully recited the names of five people who’ve directed Adam Sandler movies who aren’t Paul Thomas Anderson or James L Brooks. I remember nearly dying from blood loss when a wild-eyed Leonard Maltin kept pummeling me with his fists of iron while I tried to remember the name of the man who directed Happy Gilmore.
If you survive your beating-in ritual, then you next have to get a Proud Boys tattoo and promise to refrain from masturbation for some reason. In order to reach the highest level of film criticism you need to get into a physical altercation with people with bad, or populist tastes. For me, that meant rabbit-punching a bunch of bro types at a bar gushing about how amazing the Transformers franchise is and what an amazing filmmaker Michael Bay is.
When I was a film critic, I saw my profession as essentially a fraternal organization celebrating western chauvinism. Now that I think about it, being a film critic was exactly like being a member of the Proud Boys. It’s weird that I did not notice that before.
Yes, professional film criticism is a world onto itself, with its own history, tradition, and rules both written and unwritten. One of the those rules is that you never truly know whether a movie will be good or not until you experience it for yourself. There are, of course, exceptions. When I sat down with my former contemporaries to watch a new Martin Scorsese movie, for example, I invariably felt a rush of excitement and anticipation from knowing that I was in the hands of a true master, a giant, a legend of the field, a man put on earth to make movies and talk about movies and embody the art form the same way I was put on earth to do whatever it is I’m still able to make a living at five years from now. I’m more pragmatic and pessimistic than when the world didn’t seem quite so oppressively awful.
I similarly experienced a surge of excitement and anticipation every time I sat down to see the new Coen Brothers movie. As a film critic, the new Coen Brothers movie was much more than just another film. No, it was an event. It was a goddamn holiday for film critics, and film lovers and the world at large.
The Coen Brothers are such masters that even when there are movies aren’t that good, they’re still pretty great. The only Coen Brothers movie that I did not legitimately like or love is The Ladykillers, and a re-watch might change that. Or maybe not!
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Netflix’s most high profile romp since The Ridiculous Six, finds the iconic filmmakers revisiting the Western setting of their terrific remake of True Grit with six darkly comic tales of murder, greed and cruelty in the old west.
First up is the titular tale, a savagely funny, blood-soaked goof starring the wonderful, perfectly cast Tim Blake Nelson as a gleefully sociopathic singing cowboy who has a way with a jaunty tune as well as a six-shooter. Not unlike the Coen Brothers themselves he has a reputation as a misanthrope just because he’s callously cavalier, if not downright giddy about death, the bloodier and more violent the better.
When I interviewed Nelson for Random Roles many years back he said that when he read the script for Oh Brother Where Art Thou he was overjoyed because he knew that as good as his role read on the page, everything promised twice as good when finally realized on the big screen, once the Coen’s band of absurdly gifted craftsmen worked their magic as well.
That proves equally true here. The Coen Brothers have given Nelson, among others, beautiful, beautiful words to say, glorious verbiage they are singularly equipped to utter. The Coen Brothers love character actors and that love is reciprocated a thousandfold. A role in a Coen Brothers movie isn’t another job; it’s a gift from the Gods of cinema.
Though it is comfortable with silence, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a profoundly talky movie that delights in words, in dialogue, in snappy patter, in the hypnotic power of an intricately worded monologue delivered by the right actor in the right role.
Buster Scruggs is so accomplished as both a gunslinger and a crooner that he can mow down a man in cold blood, and then instantly compose and sing an infectious ditty literally adding insult to fatal injury by mocking the dead man’s character in song form. It’s one thing to take a man’s life. It’s another to then use it as the basis for a rowdy song and dance number.
Scruggs is very good at what he does, which is singing, dancing and murder until he runs into the wrong cowpoke and his streak of never getting murdered ends quickly and dramatically. It feels like Scruggs will be a Coen Brothers character for the ages but he doesn’t make it past the twenty minute mark.
Watching Nelson’s Buster Scruggs completely dominate the movie with his name in the goddamn title, that he will ostensibly narrate the way a similarly country-fried Sam Elliot did in The Big Lebowski, then get killed and float away to heaven, never to be seen or heard from again, I was reminded of something important about the Coen Brothers. The Coen Brothers brothers like to fuck with people. They really like to fuck with people as only profoundly, intimidatingly intelligent people can. The Coen Brothers make movies seemingly as much to fuck with the public as to entertain them.
The Coen Brothers are also silly. Deeply, profoundly, transcendently silly. That’s no small part of their greatness. They are not only two of our greatest artists, they’re also two of our biggest goofs.
James Franco, who we will hopefully be seeing a whole lot less of in the years and decades ahead, takes center stage in “Near Algodones”, the second story, playing a bank robber with seriously bum luck when he has the poor judgment to try to rob a bank teller played by a wild-eyed, wonderfully bonkers Stephen Root who is just aching for an opportunity to use lethal force to defend his place of employment. As bleakly chronicled here, the world of the old West is random, violent and chaotic, with death lurking around every corner. That of course suits the sensibility of filmmakers who have never been shy about using dead bodies and brutal murders as punchlines.
Liam Neeson stars in the third story, “Meal Ticket” as an old-fashioned impresario whose star attraction is an armless, legless orator who travels the Old West performing highflown oratory, famous words from sources as disparate as the bible, the American constitution and the speeches of Abraham Lincoln. As played by Harry Melling from the Harry Potter films, the limbless thespian is an unlikely oasis of culture and civilization in the wild, violent wilderness, a true artist in a world where art is a luxury few could afford.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs makes brilliant use of Liam Neeson’s physicality. He’s a lumbering beast of a man, a gentle giant who carries his meal ticket on his back the way a mother might carry a child. He’s got a big enough frame for two people but in the end his commitment to commerce outweighs his wavering commitment to uplifting the weary masses through art and his sense of decency as well.
Tom Waits realizes his destiny by portraying a grizzled prospector in “All Gold Canyon.” Rumor has it that Waits actually had to be de-grizzled just to play a grizzled prospector. He originally was way, way, way too grizzled for the role so they had the Queer Eye guys swing by the set so they could make Waits cosmopolitan enough to play a Gabby Hayes type.
It’s conventional wisdom that you can murder hundreds of people in a movie and have audiences cheer, but if you kill a dog, you’ve lost the audience forever. So I spent the duration of “The Gal That Got Rattled”, a moody, melancholy and dryly funny segment showcasing the squirmy vulnerability of the great Zoe Kazan praying that a loud, annoying little dog named President Pierce would survive the death of his owner and a widespread conviction that he’s so goddamned annoying that he should be put down for irritating people, if for no other reason. That might be because have a loud, annoying little dog named Ghostface Killah that I fear inspires similarly guilty fantasies of murder among people aggravated by his aggrieved yapping.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has a spooky, Twilight Zone/Tales from the Crypt vibe that finds its purest manifestation in the masterful closing segment, “The Mortal Remains”, a gorgeously written and performed chamber piece about five lonely travelers on a spooky stagecoach ride with a corpse affixed to the top of the coach.
Death is ever-present in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, particularly in its opening and closing segments, but never is the grim reaper’s icy hand and ominous presence more present or more unnerving than during this virtuoso piece of writing, acting and filmmaking.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs struck me as minor Coen Brothers. It’s a delightful if slight concoction but when it ended I was nevertheless left with a desire for more. Even though the spooky Western anthology is well over two hours long, I still wanted to spend more time in this strange, glorious universe, this weird world equally powered by wordplay and gunplay.
That’s a hallmark of the Coen Brothers. They’re among the most re-watchable filmmakers alive, to the point where it can feel like you haven’t really seen a Coen Brothers movie unless you’ve seen it three or four times, until you’ve afforded yourself the time and the space to really luxuriate in the brothers’ prickly genius.
That’s another trademark of the boys: their movies similarly improve upon repeat viewings, so while I profoundly enjoyed The Ballad of Buster Scruggs the first time around there’s a very good chance that repeat viewings would bump my estimation of it from very good to flat out great.
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