The Ballad of Buster Scruggs Review: Whimsical Death Looms Over the Coen Brothers’ Western

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs Review: Whimsical Death Looms Over the Coen Brothers’ Western

Illustration: Ahmed Sikander

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f I was faced with the unenviable task of recommending a single Coen Brothers film to a rookie unfamiliar with their oeuvre, I’d probably pick The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. It’s by no means their best (mainly because they’ve made such an awful lot of movies), but because it marks a point in Joel and Ethan Coen’s filmography where they can only parody their previous cinematic hang-ups a point which we want Tarantino to arrive at before he stops altogether.

(Beware, here be spoilers)

“Things have a way of escalating out here in the West,” Buster Scruggs a surprisingly unironical rendition of a singing Westerner on a horse, and also a wanted “misanthrope” tells the audience within the first five minutes of the film. Within the next 10, he is dead. Buster realises he has been shot by his duelling opponent, only when he sees an almost well-ordered red smear and two holes on the either side of his pristine white cowboy hat. You will come to notice, that all deaths in this Coen film are unceremonious, cruelly hurried, and they make very little mess that’s the only thematic prop which connects the six stories, which the Coen Brothers wrote at different periods in their lives.

There is no anime-style blood gushing out from the arteries on a severed arm, or a blood-splattered rear-view mirror again, all Tarantino. Death in this film doesn’t get its moment (much like any other Coen Western). There is just the knowledge of an end and its context, which again is just cause and effect. This is a good time to point out that this is the first Coen Brothers film to be shot on digital, and note the over-eager liberties they could have taken they don’t.

The Coens’ new Western goes beyond character tics, it’s about who they are when no one’s watching. The ballad is undramatic, self-aware and probably won’t reach your conscience.

They take some fantastic ones though, like casting Tom Waits in the role of a gold-digging (literally) prospector, in a god-in-his-valley kind of a role. Perhaps one of the finest cinematic performances of the year, Waits is a boisterous revelation. His lonely old camper act is as glistening as the raw gold he finds, and exactly as undaunted as you’d want Tom Waits to be in a Coen Brothers’ movie. By the way, death in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs only comes for the young, and the nearly middle-aged. The old survive, and they do so by physically prevailing over the young.

The Coens’ fellowship with the ageing shines through perfectly in Waits’ sobs of rage. The same sentiment is also embodied in a sprightly old bank teller (played by a wonderful Stephen Root) who blackhat cowboy James Franco tries to rob. The story is called “Near Algodones”, and is the least Coen-esque of the lot, but has the basics of their signature overcast humour. Franco’s outlaw is executed for a crime he didn’t commit, but that doesn’t surprise him as much as bank teller’s gleeful “pan-shot” attack, which is called so because the old man literally hangs a lot of pans on himself and marches up to the robber with a rifle. But then again, old men of the West in the Coen Brothers’ imagination, have never been doddery.

There’s nothing very original about what the film tries to do, but there’s novelty in what it stays away from. “There’s very little that’s completely original,” Joel Coen told New York Times, “and I’m not sure that that’s even very interesting when it does happen.” Too many good films this year – Widows, Suspiria – have already traded in originality for perspective.

Speaking of perspective, Liam Neeson’s character does not have one in this movie. He just wants enough for himself. Perhaps the most macabre take on the artiste-manager narrative, Neeson plays an impresario who travels around with a completely limbless young man (Harry Melling aka Dudley Dursley) who recites Shakespeare and Shelley in a makeshift theatre. Neeson soon finds a different meal ticket and “handles” the handicapped artiste, but the execution of the scene is chilling and a marvellous kind of awkward.

The lack of credible witnesses in the film is also a haunting prop. “And in all that mighty sweep of earth he saw no sign of man nor the handiwork of man,” the old gold rusher quotes Jack London (who his character is based on), as he looks around from atop a tree. No one saw Neeson push a crippled young boy off a cliff, not even the audience. James Franco, with hands tied, sits on his horse with a noose around his neck and just waits for a kind of end. Zoe Kazan’s unwitting country girl kills herself without any knowledge of a possibility or an onlooker. No one’s watching it is the simplest takeaway.

But as far as Westerns go, the film is merciful in its brevity. The narrative is pithy, the blood very little and it’s all over too soon. The Coen Brothers recently criticised TV series for being so open-ended with their storylines. “…they’re beaten to death until they’re exhausted and die. They don’t actually have an end,” Joel told Indiewire. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs will have you know that the end is overrated, courtesy Game of Thrones.

The Coens’ new Western goes beyond character tics, it’s about who they are when no one’s watching. The ballad is undramatic, self-aware and probably won’t reach your conscience. Remember when some thugs let loose a mongoose in The Dude’s bath? This anthology is its cinematic equivalent. That movie, by the way, was 20 years ago. Buster Scruggs won’t age so great, but “it’s good knowing it’s out there.”

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