“The nervous system extends through the body.”
Faith, futility, and fatalism all converge in the wanton Western that is The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the latest masterwork from the Coen Brothers and perhaps one of the best films of their conjoined careers (and of 2018, for that matter). It’s a ballad in the purest definition of the word. Each segment is a stanza and each portion of this anthology set is a vital organ giving life to a picture that sings folk songs into existence, gracefully passing its kidney stone of a story as an unbridled vehicle of pain saddled by a woebegone sense of hope. It’s the most classical Western I’ve seen since 2014’s The Homesman, and yet it’s elevated by the Coen Brother’s caustic, surly sensibilities. This one rears its nasty head, sinks its poisonous fangs in deep, and the results are so good they’re almost welcomingly deadly.
Joel and Ethan Coen open with the title character Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), a wordsmith outlaw who’s as quick with his gun as he is with his wit. He’s a friendly face with a fast trigger finger, and in the hands of the Coen Brothers, just as violent as he is verbose. He says words like appelations and congolems and sobriquet and Archimedean. That last one’s important. In this chapter, Buster Scruggs breaks the fourth wall and talks to us directly, and he serves as the filmmakers’ direct link to each person glued to the screen. It’s an invitation and an attempt for us to join the Coen Brothers in removing ourselves from the subjective perspective of the story, which only further entrenches us in a place where we feel things even more openly and fluidly. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ first song catches our attention through simple melodies and dynamic theatrics, and it’s undeniably the Coens working at their most eccentric (that shot from inside the guitar looking out? Nobody else could conceive such an image, let alone film it).
If the opening act preaches and sermons through song, showing the rise and fall of a white-dressed god on the Western Frontier, then the rest of the film is meant to introduce the slow collapse of individual ideals. Next we encounter James Franco as a thieving cowboy who meets his maker like a man who’s late for a second date. It’s the most barren of the bunch, serving more as a tonal guidepost for the remainder of this campfire tale. As Impresario, Liam Neeson stars in the third chapter alongside the quadriplegic Thespian (Harry Melling). While it’s as cold and stiff as a cadaver, blistered by strong winds and scant ticket sales, the story explores the value of entertainment, particularly how people are drawn to cheap filler over carefully composed art, and I’d guess that this segment resonates most with the Coen’s ambitions as popular filmmakers determined to subvert expectations while still appealing to the masses. The show must go on, I suppose. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs operates as one kinetic display of endless karma, yet each piece functions within its own existential limits. Like a lesson in basic arithmetic, everything adds up to the proper sum.
The style of the film doesn’t necessarily come from the episodic way it’s been told, because for the most part each bullish section is restrained by tonal lines and time limits. Instead, the mood is created by the ambient colors that the movie chooses to paint its many pieces with. We see this as a lonely old Prospector (Tom Waits) interrupts the stillness of God’s creation, searching for gold in the hills rather than the heavens. It’s a painfully funny, stunning, paralyzing parable about the human/worldly cost of taking what isn’t rightfully ours to begin with. Here, we see the unpredictable beauty and beast of nature. And then the film builds to its most powerful and penultimate allegory. Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) takes on the Oregon trail alone after the untimely death of her brother. She befriends and eventually falls for trail guide Billy Knapp (Bill Heck). They promise themselves to each other upon final destination, walking and riding as homesteaders eager to build a place all their own. As you’d expect from the Coen’s though, the heady dream is interrupted by an unimaginable nightmare. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs presents itself as a movie that is, at its stone cold center, about misfortune and failure and moral turpitude.
The finale of the film spins its wheels a bit too much, nearly to the point that it feels more like a passing epilogue than it does a proper conclusion. Yet despite my personal misgivings with the ending as a single piece, it perfectly embodies the rest of the picture as a whole. Five completely different people ride together in a wagon, some privy to what’s happening and the rest oblivious, all shepherded by a faceless coachman drenched in black. This is a visual representation of life’s light being transported into death’s unknowing darkness. And then you think back and realize that in each chapter death managed to manifest itself as a both a character and a foreboding intuition into the inevitable journey towards the great beyond. Taking a note from country music’s own man in black, the Coen’s latest masterwork brings Johnny Cash’s famous death knell tune to life. “You can run on for a long time. Run on for a long time. Run on for a long time. Sooner or later God’ll cut you down. Sooner or later God’ll cut you down.” In the hands of two greats, the sendoff into the long sleep ends up being funny, sweet, and terrifically heartbreaking. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is like a restless night of manic dreams brought to the screen, tied together with a throughline by some of the very best to ever do it.
“Here’s a tale to tell.”
Rating: 4.5 out of 5