The best thing to come out of the age of the franchise blockbuster is the speed at which “indiewood” movies arrive on streaming platforms. I watched Lady Bird in the springtime, Sorry to Bother You in the fall and now the latest Coen Brother’s outing has arrived on Netflix after a short theatrical run.
I guess they’re no longer worthy of cinema release because nobody is wearing a colourful jumpsuit. Actually, you know what, I think one guy actually was. I should stop my flippant criticisms of the superhero genre — People like them and that’s what matters.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a short film collection of six standalone stories, all connected by themes of death, betrayal and expectation, as well as the setting of the Old West.
The stories are tragic, darkly comedic and strangely uplifting, and due to the timed shifts between the narratives, the film is over before you know it.
There’s something to take away from each of the six narratives and I’m going to attempt to briefly explain just what those things are. Spoilers ahead and all that.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The opening outing sees the two extremes of the western genre mashed together into one piece — The ultra-violent shoot-a-thon and the prairie musical.
Buster Scruggs is a singing, shooting cowboy who dresses like the Milkybar Kid. He rides around the West yodelling his tune, which leaves his enemies unsuspecting of his violent ways. He dispatches of them in a series of comedically violent methods before engaging in a showdown with a black-clad roamer.
Scruggs is instantly shot and killed, as the tone is set for the entire film — Don’t grow attached to any of the characters we will be presenting to you today, for the protagonists will be slaughtered, no matter which end of the Western book we peruse.
This story felt like quintessential Coen brothers, with 90s-style gallows humour (quite literally) and comedic, almost slapstick action. Despite this, it was perhaps my least favourite of the stories. There was no intrigue because I felt as though I’d seen it before, in another world at another time, with different players.
Stephen Root puts in a great little performance as a bank teller, but James Franco offers nothing to the lead role that any generic male actor couldn’t bring to the table.
Thankfully it’s the shortest of the stories, and we quickly move onto something with a little more depth.
Perhaps the most tragic of the six stories, Meal Ticket sees Liam Neeson travelling from town to town as he puts his act on for ever-decreasing numbers of spectators. His act is a young man with no arms or legs, named Harrison, who recites classical poetry and famous speeches.
Their profits are dwindling and the winter is cold, and Liam Neeson treats his meal ticket as an object rather than another person. Liam Neeson is then conned, as he purchases a “magic” chicken that can perform basic arithmetic.
Of course, the magic itself is in the contraption, but he only sees that a chicken requires less care than a man with no arms or legs. So he drops Harrison from a high bridge and continues on the road with his chicken.
In this story, nobody wants to see a curiosity — A strange twist on some classical narratives — They’d rather watch a chicken. Is this about modern media?
All Gold Canyon
We follow an ageing prospector as he looks for a gold ore pocket in the middle of a mountain valley. His struggle is uplifting and his connection with nature is admirable, but by this point in the film I knew he wouldn’t make it out alive.
Whilst I attempted to predict his method of demise, a lone gunman approaches him from behind and shoots. After a two minute pause, as the gunman watches the prospector bleed out, the prospector surprises the gunman and kills him.
The bullet has “gone clean through”, he patches himself up, collects the gold and rides off to the horizon. A happy ending! Our expectations have been subverted in part 4/6, so maybe everything will be okay from here on out.
I mean, he’ll probably die from an infected wound, but we don’t know that for sure. The Coen brothers give us hope before…
The Girl Who Got Rattled
We watch two people fall in love on the Oregon Trail, a series of events occur and “the girl” tragically kills herself when she “needn’t have done that”.
This served well as a thirty-minute narrative, but had this been feature-length with the same outcome, even I (captain misery) wouldn’t have enjoyed it. There’s too much natural chemistry between the leads for it to end this way, but it did and that’s the point.
This story is about an uncertainty for the future, but a calm tranquility in the present. The girl chooses the path of the known, the certainty of the now. But by choosing this route she makes a mistaken decision that costs her everything.
You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. Damn you Coen Brothers.
The Mortal Remains
I’ve seen a couple of reviewers brag about how they “understood the deep meaning behind The Mortal Remains”. Mate, this wasn’t a difficult text, the reapers even call themselves reapers.
This final story is about three souls making the journey from death to the afterlife, as they’re taken in a carriage across the plains to “Fort Morgan”. They explain their personal philosophies, musings and perspectives on the nature of man, before one of the reapers vaguely clarifies what it’s all about.
They arrive at their destination, finally sure of where they are, as the book closes for the final time.
Like with all Coen Brother’s outings, it’s the characters that keep these stories ticking along. Just don’t get too attached to them, as they won’t hang around. Such is the nature of the West.
Not their best work, but deeply enjoyable on a cathartic level. Confront death with the Coen Brothers for two hours, set to the tune of a familiar genre that they’ve proven themselves competent with.
8/10 — Probably don’t need to watch it twice, but you should see it once.
Today is Thursday, November 29th and I’ve almost finished the Spyro games already. Oops.
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