January 10, 2019 – Death and tragedy are never far from Coen brothers (Ethan and Joel of “No Country for Old Men”) movies. Whether it be feeding a murdered man's body into a wood chipper, or throwing an inconvenient legless, armless man into a river, death, irony and comedy are often intertwined in their movies, and “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is more of the same, but with a higher body count.
The episodic movie (the title reminds me of famed bluegrass musician Earl Scruggs) organized around chapters in a book, with color plates, starts off with the title character, a foppish tin horn gambler, singer and gunfighter played by Tim Blake Nelson (“Fantastic Four”) shooting up a couple of saloons before meeting his match in another singer/gunfighter played by singer-songwriter Willie Watson.
Nelson is first seen against the backdrop of what looks like Monument Valley singing and playing his guitar while riding his horse towards the first saloon. Willie Watson sings “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” at the end of this episode, displaying a fine voice.
More singing is featured in the episode “The Mortal Remains” in which Brendan Gleeson of “Paddington 2” sings an old Irish dirge, “The Unfortunate Rake” (the tune is better known by its American reincarnation, “The Streets of Laredo”) in a stagecoach. On top of the stagecoach is the body of a man he killed with his bounty hunter partner. Also in the stagecoach are Saul Rubinek of “Barney's Version” and Tyne Daly of “Spider-Man: Homecoming” who debate morality in between songs.
This movie was filmed in New Mexico, Colorado and Nebraska, which is near my neck of the woods, so a lot of the scenery looks familiar. Unlike some Coen brothers movies, this looks like it was shot on a grand scale, particularly the wagon train segment called “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” probably filmed in Nebraska.
The wagon train segment is typical of Coen brothers stories in that you have people put into a dangerous situation, where it seems hopeless, then it isn't, then it is, then it isn't, and so on. They seem to like these scenarios that play with the expectations of the audience, particularly when those expectations are based on movie clichés or Hollywood norms.
“The Gal Who Got Rattled” is one of the longer segments in which some of the characters are more developed, particularly Alice Longabaugh (a possible reference to the name Harry Longabaugh, better known as “The Sundance Kid”) played by Zoe Kazan, who was also in another wagon train movie, “Meek's Cutoff.” There is a kind of romance between Alice and wagon master Billy Knapp (Bill Heck of “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”). From there story spirals down to an ironic Coen Brothers conclusion.
A beautiful mountain valley is the setting for the “Gold Canyon” segment, starring Tom Waits of “The Old Man & the Gun”). Waits, of course, sings, as well as digging for gold. Liam Neeson (of the “Taken” movies) stars as the ruthless impresario of a one-man traveling show (Harry Melling of the “Harry Potter” movies plays the orator). Featuring a poorly sung song, “Meal Ticket,” was my least favorite of the episodes.
James Franco of “The Disaster Artist” stars as a bank robber who comes up against a bizarre bank teller, followed by a series of desperate situations in the episode “Near Algodones.” This story follows the same pattern as several other episodes.
I enjoyed most of these stories, except for “Meal Ticket,” which seems pretty tasteless to me. You have to accept death along with humor in most Coen brothers movies, and you get multiple doses of death in this movie, it haunts most of these stories. I think I'd like the Coen Brothers movies more if they'd just lighten up a bit (like they did in “Hail Caesar!”). This movie rates a B.
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