Once Upon A Time In The West
♦ Tripwire’s senior editor Andrew Colman takes a look at the Coen Brothers’ western anthology The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, available to watch now on Netflix…
The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Stars: Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Zoe Kazan, Tom Waits, Liam Neeson, Harry Melling, Bill Heck, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson
The Coen Brothers latest entry marks a significant turning point in their canon – a digitally made film that will be almost exclusively seen on Netflix. However, for those who are fans of the Coen franchise, the point is moot – all the classic hallmarks of their oeuvre are intact. Once again they have returned to one of their favourite genres, the Western, only this time they have opted for a portmanteau movie with six unrelated stories, connected only by their tone and unremittingly harsh milieu. What the Coens always succeed in achieving is their seamless combination of painstaking authenticity and skewed, if not surreal opacity. All the stories offer a glimpse at either a merciless night -time world or a burlesque, retro hoedown that encompasses old Hollywood and musicals. And many points in between.
Each chapter, book-ended by a colour plate that foretells the key moment in each segment, is of varying quality or weight – the opener, focusing on a gurning, garrulous Roy Rogers type of singing cowboy (Buster Scruggs himself, played by Tim Blake Nelson) is the strangest of the tales, our protagonist floating through idealised Monument Valley scenes as he dispatches grizzled baddies in one-horse towns before he himself meets his maker. The Coens waste no time in keeping you off balance, the sheer grotesqueness of Scruggs both an irritant and compulsive.
From there, there is James Franco’s hapless bank robber in Near Algodones, a lighter story with plenty of witty black humour (the bank teller easily defeating Franco, the lynch mob wrestling with arrows in their necks before they get shot again), more reminiscent of Charlier and Giraud’s Blueberry, only this time our anti-hero has no agency, despite his winning smile. After this comes the bleakest of the episodes, a yarn straight out of an EC horror book – Meal Ticket. A travelling sideshow run by Liam Neeson showcases the limbless Artist (Harry Melling) whose appeal is gradually diminishing across the dustbowl towns that pepper this benighted world. Humour, along with characterisation, is kept to a bare minimum, the always apparent punchline not long in coming – atmosphere and the setting are all.
Equally at home in the pages of EC is possibly the best effort of the pack – All Gold Canyon, delineating the slight tale of a hardened prospector (Tom Waits, unrecognisable and terrific) arriving at an untouched, Disneyfied valley in search of gold. His unrelenting and tenacious effort to find “Mr. Pocket” under the beating sun is a joy to watch, his inner dialogue hilarious in its naturalism. A remarkable woodcut tale of survivalism, irony and classic western tropes. Following on from this is the longest and most sombre piece, which unlike the rest focuses far more on characterisation. Set in 1840s Oregon, The Gal Who Got Rattled is a bittersweet effort concerning the relationship between Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) a girl travelling on a wagon train and Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), the wagon leader, along with his lugubrious partner, Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines). This section, which apparently was a logistical nightmare for the Coens, is the only one that could’ve been feature-length and could be classified as elegiac.
The finale (The Mortal Remains) is a corrective to what preceded it – straight out of the Twilight Zone (with a bit of Tarantino thrown in) the action takes place exclusively in a closed set, featuring three souls bound for an uncertain place aboard a stagecoach, unaware of the two other gentlemen’s intent. Starring Tyne Daly as the haughtily devout Mrs. Betjeman, it’s a clever and unsettling little parable to close out the movie – archetypal sinister-lite from the filmmakers.
The movie is an amusing if broad picaresque from the Coens – thoroughly enjoyable but not without its faults – Franco’s magnetic character is dispensed with far too arbitrarily, while the Native Americans are merely baying (and somewhat lethal) ciphers in both of their appearances. Yet the attention to detail, glorious cinematography and outstanding performances from all involved, plus the sheer bravura of the set-pieces make up for most misgivings. Rarely in Coen world, especially its western variant, are the characters articulate and transcendent – many for the most part are mumbling if not confused itinerants trapped in the pages of the film’s fictional book, which both parodies and pays homage not just to the Old West but old westerns. But it’s all still unmistakably their work and always assuredly entertaining, with none of the pieces outstaying their welcome.