You can’t watch a Coen brothers film just once. For some reason, in spite of this firm belief, I insist on reviewing their films after one viewing. Knee-jerk responses to films made by two brothers who are meticulous in everything they do. Never a smart idea.
Hail, Caesar! is sticky with nostalgia, too caught up in it to provide a thorough and satisfying narrative. After watching it a few more times, it becomes clear that there is more to the film than empty pastiche. The nuance in the staging of homage is matched by the nuance of the scripting when it comes to commentary on finding meaning in an industry fueled by chaotic lunacy.
Hail, Caesar! still isn’t my favorite of the Coens’ film, but it gets better with repeated exposure. The same must also be true with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, if critical reception is to be given merit in the conversation.
The Coen’s latest premiered on Netflix, but the way it is shot by Bruno Delbonnel begs to be seen on a big screen. Its visual appeal in its capturing of that classic western look is undeniable. Yet, its narrative conceit is right at home in Netflix’s stable.
Told anthologically, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs appears as a storybook telling tales of hope and loss in the west. The eponymous Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) takes the protagonist role in the first of these stories—to call him a protagonist, though, would be a stretch.
With a toothy grin and a sonorous voice, Scruggs provokes folks into duels he know they won’t win while claiming to never having killed a man that didn’t provoke him first. An allegory for something contemporary? Sure, maybe. But more so than that it is a jarring entrance to the film, whose tone will shift drastically as it moves forward.
Nelson is a snide, evil figure whose comeuppance never truly comes, even as death stares him in the face. It befits a thematic consistency of the film, in which hope is a commodity on the verge of running dry. But Scruggs is a title character who doesn’t square the circle of his own movie. He makes direct address to camera. He sings full odes to himself and his horse. He is a diabolical cartoon living in a film that is otherwise providing more down-to-earth portrayals of western hardship.
Scruggs as a character would not find himself in the same story as Henry Melling’s tragic limbless artist, Zoe Kazan’s isolated caravaneer, or Tom Waits’ vigilant gold prospector.
Yes, all of these shorts grapple with the ironies of assuming hopefulness inside the throes of wasteland, but none are as grinningly cruel as Scruggs’. Starting the film in this fashion, and lending the character’s name to the title, seems to confuse what the Coens’ are out for with this picture. Is it a film about the small bits of hope that keep you going amidst the hardship? Or is it a film about the fleeting optimism that you can’t get a grip on as the sheer weight of the hardship bears down on you from all sides?
If Scruggs is the closest thing to a hero the film provides, then it appears to be the latter. In either case, whether the film champions optimism or nihilism, it is doing so with a clear eye toward the present. The world of the generic western is one in which characters are coming to grips with the changing of their environment. Eventually, the west was tamed. For some characters, this is a benefit. For others, they become witness to the walls of their livelihood collapsing around them.
One could pick apart The Ballad of Buster Scruggs for parallels. It wouldn’t be hard to take the turbulent west of Scruggs and map it on to the turbulence of modern America. I can see the possibilities therein. What I don’t see is the import in doing so. These small snippets of stories have intriguing implications for character, as we drop into the lives of these people at the most dire moments. But the thematic depth of field is much shallower.
As engaging as the performances of Kazan and Nelson and Waits are, the shorts often run out of steam well before their climax. Waits’ short, “All Gold Canyon,” is the most succinct and the most pleasing throughout. Other stories, like “Near Algodones” and “Meal Ticket,” stretch thin premises that are, from the jump, only marginally entertaining.
I may be on the wrong side of this one. Give it two more watches, and I’ll probably come around. But The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, as of now, is screaming middling Coens. Of course, being in the middle of such a list is no punishment.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: B-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)