The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018): The Dark Humor and Despair of the “Old West”

      I am a huge Coen Brothers fan. “Fargo,” “Blood Simple” and “The Big Lewbowski” are some of my favorite films of all time and I love the desolation and farcical nature that is brought to so many of their dramas. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is certainly up there with those films, but doesn’t quite reach their level of perfection. Lately they’ve been doing more collaborations but this is wholly a Coen Brothers film as they wrote, produced and directed this film.

    “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a Western anthology that follows the tales of the gunslinger, the thief, the conman, the prospector, the cowboy and the bounty hunter. Each story is haunted with tales of death and destruction as all are faced with choices told in a storybook fashion. The name of the anthology also is the name of the first story within the anthology itself.

I’m judging each story individually before an overall take on the whole, since though they are each connected in theme, it is still an anthology film.

SPOILERS ahead

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is one of the happiest of the tales, as even though death and destruction happen, Buster Scruggs always has a song on his lips and his sheer joy rubs off on the events throughout the story. The story follows Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) the Gunslinger as he goes about from town to town, taking out people who challenge him. It finally all comes to a head when the Man in Black finds him and it is the duel he finally loses, that brings his story to an end. This one was great as a musical and I love Tim Blake Nelson’s energy as Buster Scruggs. He is fun and funny and even though is willing to kill always treats people as a good person first and always has a song on his lips. This is what makes his death tragic, but he does get to go to Heaven and gets angel wings, so his story isn’t entirely tragic…especially compared to the stories that come up later.

Score: 9.4 / 10. The cinematography is beautiful, the music is great and if we’d had more time with characters it could have been a perfect Musical Western.

Near Algodones

This story is comparable to “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” in how absurd it is, though it differs in that it doesn’t have the joy of that story. This is a story of desperation and lack of luck where every situation leads to a worse one. The story follows a young cowboy (James Franco) who is attempting to rob an isolated bank. He fails and is about to be hung by local law enforcement, when some Native Americans attack and leave him to die. Another band of thieves takes him and and they are caught and brought to town to be hung. This is the young cowboy’s second hanging and the one where he finally dies. This was the story that made me wish we’d gotten the Native story in these tales. They are all from the perspective of the privileged old west, which does have intriguing stories, but the Natives are only ever antagonists or in the case of this story, indifferent. Some of that tribe’s story could have been explored in this but instead Franco’s character just takes the long way around to finally getting hung.

Score: 7.5 / 10

Meal Ticket

This story was by far the most haunting and probably my most favorite. There are two characters, the Impresario (Liam Neeson) and his actor Harrison (Harry Melling). Harrison doesn’t have arms or legs and performs speeches and Shakespeare as the Impresario travels through towns to make money. We don’t know how they came about together but we soon see how little the Impresario doesn’t care about Harrison at all leading into a tragic ending, where the Impresario buys a chicken who can do basic math and it is implied he drops Harrison into the river. This is after Harrison has stopped bringing in the money he once did. Liam Neeson plays the Impresario and is wonderfully creepy. He reminds me of a much worse version of Fagin from Dickens’ “Oliver” and seeing just how much he disregards Harrison is powerful as well as Harrison’s fear as Harrison only acts through his eyes and the acting he puts into the shows. This story is all about exploration and despair and how powerless the only good person (Harrison) is in a world that sees him as a burden or something to be exploited. It is a tragedy and easily the best story of the bunch.

Score: 10 / 10.

All Gold Canyon

“All Gold Canyon” is a film focused on the beauty of nature and the ravings of an old prospector (Tom Waits) searching for gold in the wilderness. I really enjoyed this story as so much of it is Man v Nature as the prospector goes through the process of finding gold flakes and eventually hitting the gold but finding himself attacked by a young man who was watching him as he is no longer facing the wilderness but facing the selfishness of humanity. He ends up killing the man after he outsmarts him and buries him in the small hole he created in his search for the gold. It is a really great story with the only problem being how distracting the CGI deer is. There was no reason not to use a real deer given how beautiful the landscape is and the owl looked real at least. If there hadn’t been the deer and bad CGI this story would have been perfect for what it was. I was rooting for the muttering prospector who talks to himself, I wanted him to find the gold and I was happy when he did and survived.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

The Gal Who Got Rattled

“The Gal Who Got Rattled” is the weakest of the stories and brings everything else down. There are far too many characters, none of them are really likable or interesting and it has nothing profound to say and lacks a coherent point. The story follows Alice (Zoe Kazan) who is traveling west with her brother to marry. Her brother dies along the way and we learn she’s been conned and now doesn’t have any money. One of the cowboys falls in love with her and that goes nowhere, and later she is with her brother’s dog when they are attacked by Natives and she ends up killing herself when the leader of the caravan says she should do it cause it is a better fate than getting captured. This one has the same problems as “Near Algodones” in how the Native Americans only exist as a threat and also in that we never get to really know any of the characters. They are doing things but I couldn’t really tell you who they are. This story is cinematically beautiful, but when that is the only thing I’m saying as a pro, you kind of failed.

Final Score: 6 / 10

The Mortal Remains

“The Mortal Remains,” is also one of the best stories of the bunch. This is a story that has an element of magical surrealism to it as for a good portion of the film I thought all the characters might be dead. The story follows 5 characters in a carriage on their way to Fort Morgan in a stagecoach. The conversation unfolds as we learn about our characters and their relationships. From an old religious lady who is coming to see her husband, the Frenchman who says that her professor husband was probably cheating on her, a trapper who has no internal editor and is looked down on by the lady for how unclean he physically is and the Irishman and Englishman who we learn at the end are Bounty Hunters. There is an heir of foreboding through the entire conversation and outside it is dark and covered and mist, this made me think of the afterlife and if they were all being transported their. The fact that the carriage doesn’t stop until they reach Fort Morgan played into this. We see this theme in the hotel they stop at has a stairway of light leading up that the bounty hunters carry the dead body up and in the carriage driver whose face we never see and is always moving. My favorite characters were the bounty hunters as the others with them were a bit bland. We learn their backstory but they are more interesting in how they reacted to their situation and the bounty hunters. Their fear and not knowing what to do made them more compelling than the backstories they shared, which made the story work.

Final Score: 9 / 10. Solidly great. Would have been better with more interesting characters outside of the bounty hunters.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is well worth your time if you are a Coen Brothers or western fan. This film captures so much of what works and doesn’t work about westerns and I loved the absurdity, detachment and sorrow that the Coens bring to their films. This is a beautiful anthology and I would have watched more stories if it had been longer. When it is great it is perfect and when it is flawed it is still enjoyable. Not many anthology films can claim that, as average is easy. This was an amazing film and definitely one of my favorites, though it might not make my Top 5 at the end of the year. This year is a year of steep competition and the things that bring the anthology down are enough to keep it from landing higher up on the list of greats this year. Still, this is a film I highly recommend. Check it out.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10 The bad stories bring it down, though the great stories make this score still very high.

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Barton Fink (1991): To Become the Common Man

Barton_Fink_(1991)

“Barton Fink,” was once an impressive film. I also have yet to see a bad Coen Brothers film so it may be that everything they make is gold since they put so much time into shooting a scene and exploring the mind and motivations of their characters while keeping an overwhelming theme of loneliness and isolation.

“Barton Fink” was directed, written and produced by Joel and Ethan Coen.

The story involves Barton Fink, a playwright whose successful Broadway show Bare Ruined Choirs leads to some folks in Hollywood wanting him to write the script for a wrestling movie. Once he arrives he finds he has none of the support network he had in New York and that he is completely alone except for his neighbor Charlie, who isn’t all he appears. He soon finds things even more complicated as his writer’s block continues and he finds himself pulled into a murder investigation. From here the story unfolds.

Here is the assessment of the film:

The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful, from the shots of the broken down and later burning hotel, to any time you are seeing things from Barton’s point of view or you see his anxiety and isolation taking hold. The room is big but can be made to be confining, the hotel is beautiful but is made to bleak…that is the beauty of the cinematography of this film that the Coens and Roger Deakins pulled off.

The Music – The music is very minimalist, which serves the plot really well since it gives us time with the characters and creates tension when it needs too. There are some great piano pieces that I plan on listening to later for my own writing. Carter Burwell did great!

The Characters – Characters are usually the strongest part of most Coen Brothers Films, and this movie continues that.

Chet – Steve Buscemi makes a brief appearance at Chet the Bellhop who is miserable and unhappy. Every word he does is a passive aggressive jab and his character looks miserable. He is our first glimpse of how Hollywood spits people out and destroys the common man.

Audrey Taylor – Judie Davis plays the primary love interest for the writer W.P. Mayhew and Barton Fink. In the case of Mayhew she isn’t respected but it is only in it out of a savior complex and the fact that she built him and wrote most of his work. She is a wonderful and trapped character (like most of the folks in the film). We see her escape with Barton only for it to end in her death…Her death actually means something too since she is one of the few better people we meet.

Ben Geisler – Ben Geisler is the producer who is pretty driven and tends to see past most of the crap around him. He also doesn’t care about anyone truly outside of the films he produces. Tony Shalhoub is great in this role as he calls out Lipnick and the studios for how they don’t care and use everyone. He also advises Barton to get advice from another writer which drives the story forward.

The Detectives – The guys are completely Noir, I love their speech patterns as they insult Barton to give them information they can use to find where Charlie Meadows went since he is the serial killer who has been killing women (who fit Audrey’s description) and taking their heads. They are detached as everyone around Barton but are good in their roles as they aren’t completely antagonistic.

Charlie Meadows / Karl “Madman” Munt – Charlie Meadows is the every man and the muse who Barton denies for sometime. He is expressive about his work as a salesman and Goodman was perfect for the role as he’s so jovial and kind of Barton who is a nervous wreck most of the time. The Reveal that was he was the serial killer was powerful too as he admits he only let Barton live because Barton never listened (before he frees Barton from the beadpost he chained him too). He may have killed Barton’s family and Audrey’s head might be in the present he gave Barton before leaving. In that way we don’t know if he’s just mad or if he is in fact the killer, though most signs point to him being the killer given his shooting down of the detectives and everything he implies to Barton. He’s a pretty great character and antagonist. One of Goodman’s best roles.

Barton Fink – This is the best role I’ve seen John Turturro do, which makes me want to see him in more films. He was great in “O Brother Where Art Thou?” but I haven’t ever seen him as the lead character until this film. He is great at playing the nervous writer who fetishizes the common man (doesn’t listen to anyone share their story and will interrupt them to go off on the idealized common man and how noble his profession is) until he’s found he’s become one. For much of the film he isn’t able to connect to anyone except for Charlie, who used him to kill Audrey and he briefly connects with a woman at the end who may be the woman in the picture above his type writer making the illusion of connection around him complete. He is a character who is unable to stand up to himself even after his work is insulted by Lipnick and Capital Pictures, it’s really his stubbornness that keeps him there and fear, which illustrates how by the end he has become the common man trapped in a job he doesn’t want anymore being used by those around him.

The Themes – The themes in this movie are wonderful…the biggest is that of integrity and the connection to the common man. Barton Fink is seeking to tell the story of the common man but it is so involved in himself he’s unable to listen or empathize until he is chewed out and spit out by the studio in turn becoming the common man. He also finds that he was wrong in his idealization of the people as Charlie was really the serial killer Karl “Madman”‘ Munt who killed Audrey and countless other women before taking off their heads. The movie reveals the false faces of the common men like Charlie and also of the higher ups like Lipnick the leader of Capital Boss pictures who has been lying to Barton the entire time.

The Message – One of the core messages of the film is that Barton was right about writing and that Mayhew and making stuff up was wrong. Good writing comes from a place of suffering and pain and Barton is unable to finish his script until than. The world doesn’t want that though as represented by Lipnick who rejects it as “fruity,” and is shown to be as false as Mayhew and the films he desires. It’s a pretty great critique of Modern Hollywood now even as it’s far easier for million dollar schlock to be produced and green lighted (Emmerich and Michael Bay as examples) than for pictures that have character and a deeper meaning. It also shows that if you stay true you to you and the experience of your experiences that you can create something great, even if nobody recognizes it.

Okay/ The Cons: Lipnick – Lipnick is a two faced guy who tells people want they want to hear but in the end cares nothing about the integrity of art or the well being of his employees. In this way he is a great antagonist, but we have no idea why he is this way as his motivations are never truly explored. Not a con completely, but given how well most of the other characters are explored, I wish he’d been given more motivation.

W.P. Mayhew – The drunk writer who just writers for the sake of writing and putting out schlock because it pays the bills. The guy is miserable and slave for selling himself out and his integrity and he’s an abusive drunk to boot as he hits Audrey on one occassion we see. I get he is broken and apparently he’s married to a “Broken” wife which is why Audrey is trying to save him…but I never cared for the guy. The theme of detachment doesn’t serve his character, though I guess that’s the point since his great work didn’t come from any real place.

This is one of my favorite films, but not the perfect Coen Brothers Film. It has great themes, characters, music and cinematography…but some characters who are antagonistic aren’t as explored as they could have been. That’s really the only big problem I can find as the critique of films produced nowadays still stands, as well as the importance of integrity in art and the importance of empathy and connection. If you like the Coen Brothers or are looking for a good drama, I highly recommend this film. John Goodman and Turturro are fantastic as the leads and have some of the best moments in the film. It is well worth checking out.

Final Score: 9.5 / 10. One of my favorite films and another great Coen Brothers movie.