By John H. Foote
The Coen Brothers are without question national treasures to the cinema. Since their explosion into the art form with Blood Simple (1987), they have dazzled audiences and critics with their wildly quirky and original works. Even their weaker films and there are few of these, are much more interesting than what they are usually released against. Their best work, Raising Arizona (1987), Miller’s Crossing (1990), the extraordinary Fargo (1996), the cult classic The Big Lebowski (1998), O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000), the Academy Award-winning No Country for Old Men (2007), the superb True Grit (2010) perhaps the greatest of modern westerns, and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) bringing us to this new film. Their failures, either box office or critically have been Films such as Barton Fink (1989), The Hudsucker Proxy (1991), the moody The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), The Ladykillers (2004), and Hail Caesar (2016) were each in their own way special, containing other great performances, design or writing. While some critics claim they run hot and cold, I disagree, I think there is always something worthy in their films.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (TBOBS), their new film, produced by Netflix, opened in theatres for a few days before premiering on the streaming network Friday. It has some of their best and least in the six short films that make up this bizarre anthology. Set in the Old West, the stories are not interconnected, other than in their location.
The first, using the title as its own, will put a giddy smile on your face just due to the courage with which it was made. Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) is a diminutive guitar player cowboy who sings as he rides through Monument Valley, a smile on his face and openly discusses his “pleasing baritone” which is part of what has made him famous. The other is his lethal ability with a gun. Dressed in a white outfit, looking like a Halloween character, his smiling, almost goofy personality contradicts his deadly gifts with a gun. Like all men with a gun, there will be a man seeking him out, and sure enough, a man in black, who also sings, does just that.
The second story, Near Algones, deals with a badass bank robber, nicely portrayed by James Franco, looking absolutely at home in the Old West, who chooses the wrong bank to rob. Irony dominates this man’s life, as he is caught after robbing the bank, sentenced to hang, is the only survivor of an Indian attack, which saves him from hanging, only to be rescued by a rustler. Tragedy follows him.
The third, Meal Ticket is the single most bizarre of the stories and might be the strangest twenty minutes of cinema the brothers Coen have created. Liam Neeson, in a near-silent performance, moves from town to town with his star attraction, an armless and legless orator who spins grand tales for the dwindling audiences. Harry Melling is remarkable as the talking torso, but when upstaged by a chicken, his life is about to change.
The best of the stories is the fourth, All Gold Canyon, which like Chaplin’s’ silent classic The Gold Rush (1924), pits an old white-haired prospector and his mule against the land in his lonely quest for gold. Again, irony steps in those this old fellow prove to be much tougher than anyone would suspect. The valley was pristine when he walked in, and when he leaves it is filled in, cleaned up and again pristine. It is as though the old fellow was never there. There was a time the land truly was clean, untouched by man, holding treasures and a vast wilderness. Beautifully explored.
Zoe Kazan gives a superb performance in the fifth short, The Gal Who Got Rattled, which again is ironically tragic. Kazan is the sister of a big talker who arranges a marriage for her across the country in Oregon but he dies on the wagon train. A delicate dance is done between her and one of the men leading the drive, played well by Bill Heck. He keeps singing the praises of his trail boss, but in the final third of the short, we see that, indeed, the older man is fearless and a true warrior when he and the girl are attacked by Indians. What happens is sad, tragic yet again, but Kazan lights up the film with her performance.
The final short and weakest is set aboard a claustrophobic stagecoach as it speeds towards its destination. Why the brothers chose to end the film with this, I cannot say.
James Franco, Zoe Kazan, Tim Blake Nelson, and Tom Waits are absolute delights in the film, though so good are they we want more, the length of the shorts simply does not give us enough. It is a totally involving film in every way. Score one again for the Coens.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.