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.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): The Idealization of the West and the formation of Statehood

Man-Who-Shot-Liberty-Valance-Poster 

     “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” is a western directed by John Ford. The story begins with Senator Stoddard returning back to the town in the west that made him famous to visit Tom Doniphon’s funeral. From here he tells the story of the past to the press and the story unfolds. The story involves Ranse Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) who is seeking his fortune out west when he is attacked and robbed by Liberty Valance. From here is found by Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) who brings him in to a restaurant where he is nursed back to health. From here the story unfolds as the path to statehood is used to explore the relationships in the town and to Liberty Valance and his gang. 

Here is the assessment of the film:

Pros: The Cinematography – The film is in black and white and makes great use of shadows. Visually the movie is stunning and makes good use of the sets it takes place on…giving life to the town and the west. 

Ranse Stoddard – James/Jimmy Stewart is a fantastic protagonist. He is the idealistic lawyer who doesn’t believe in force until he realizes Liberty doesn’t care and will continue to hurt and rob and keep the territory from seeking federal protection. After he is abused by Valance at the restaurant where he falls in love with the owners daughter Hallie (Vera Miles) he begins training with a gun. He also teaches Hallie and the town how to read and write and about the law. He is a complex character who respects Hallie and has a respect for Tom who helps him but is doing so grudgingly for much of the film. 

Hallie Stoddard – Vera Miles is fantastic in her role and the writers do a good job of giving her agency. After she learns how to read and write from Ranse she becomes a teacher in the class. She chooses to be with Ranse too and never shows Tom that she feels romantically the same way he does, though she does respect him deeply. 

Tom Doniphon – It is John Wayne, this is his thing. He is the gruff, no-nonsense hero. Really my biggest issue with his character is his condescension to Hallie and thinking he owns her. It takes her clearly showing she loves Ranse for him to finally get that which leads to him burning the cabin he built for them. He is the one who kills Valance but is never recognized for it by anyone other othan Hallie and Ranse since the press refuses to destroy the legend of Ranse being the one to kill him. He also isn’t racist and stands up for the man named Pompey (who is African American) who works for him. 

The Formation of Statehood – Tom represents military and Ranse represents civilization. Tom is all protection and Ranse is all about education. Both were needed for the territory to become a state and get the recognition on the federal level. This dynamic is explored really well in their relationship to one another…ending in Ranse getting the nomination and Tom defeating Liberty and his gang…as well as remaining a symbol of the nameless soldier. 

Okay: Doc. Peabody – The drunk doctor is pretty much just that. He is the idealistic press man who is nearly killed which inspires Ranse to challenge Liberty to a gun fight near the end. He isn’t bad, he just is one note. 

Marshall Appleyard – Played by Andy Devine (famous voice actor for Disney, played Friar Tuck in their “Robin Hood” animated film) is a coward just trying to protect his family. He is cool in that he has a large Hispanic family and protects Peabody as well at one point. His problem is we don’t see that so much of his fear is tied to his family and protecting them. Showing that would have elevated his character to a pro. 

Cons: Liberty Valance – He is cruel of the sake of cruel and extremely one note. He doesn’t elevate this either and his goons are one dimensional cronies as well. He exists as an abstract threat at his best because there is no character there. 

Western Problem – Native Americans are seen as savages and even seen as redskins in this. The fact that there were already people in the territory is glossed over as a Manifest Destiny is embraced as represented by Ranse. I wish this had been addressed at least a little…though this a problem from lots of movies in this era and even westerns today. 

       “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” was an enjoyable western, though the problems of Tom’s misogyny for most of it till the end and the racism towards the natives cannot go unspoken. It is the idealization of statehood where the biggest threat are nameless gangsters who kill and take for the sake of doing so….and it is in that idealization that it is at it’s best. It’s just a shame it didn’t capture the complexity better. I would recommend this movie, just know these problems. 

My final score is 8 / 10. It definitely deserves the praise it gets as a classic in cinema, largely because of how well the leads handle their roles.