By Leslie C. Halpern
Six star-studded short stories, the first of which boasts the film’s title, present an off-kilter, dark-humored Coen-brothers version of America’s Old Wild West.
Although the subjects of each story differ, common themes emerge among these stories. Contained within a stylish framework of a book of western shorts, there’s a focus on the fickleness of fate, impermanence of life, the thin line between outlaw and hero, and contrasts between traveling and arriving at destinations.
A Cold-Blooded Singing Cowboy
The title story stars Tim Blake Nelson as a quick-drawing singing cowboy named Buster Scruggs. His reputation as a well-mannered, but cold-blooded killer precedes him wherever he goes. Short and unassuming in appearance, Buster benefits from being underestimated by others, until one day he overestimates himself. Add Buster Scruggs to the list of quirky characters that Nelson has made famous.
In the second story, “Near Algodones,” James Franco stars as a dim-witted bandit who confronts a quick-acting bank teller (Stephen Root) in a botched robbery attempt. In the next segment, “Meal Ticket,” Liam Neeson portrays the cold-hearted owner of a traveling show who earns his living off the oratory talent of a legless and armless young man (Harry Melling). The fourth tale, “All Gold Canyon,” involves an old prospector (Tom Waits) who believes he’s finally going to strike it rich. In the fifth story, “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” a lonely young woman (Zoe Kazan) and a wagon train leader (Bill Heck) hope to marry when they finally reach Oregon.
The final segment, “The Mortal Remains,” presents five people on a stagecoach headed for a hotel. The strange assortment features an older woman (Tyne Daly) hoping to reunite with her estranged husband, a smelly trapper (Chelcie Ross), a brutally honest Frenchman (Saul Rubinek), and two bounty hunters (Jonjo O’Neill and Brendan Gleeson).
Plans Go Awry
As you’d expect in a Coen-brothers film, unusual camera angles (from inside a guitar, between a dead man’s legs, etc.) are constant reminders that things are not quite what they seem and plans are destined to go awry. The cinematography by Bruno Debonnel (director of photography) is often beautiful and artistic, and the humor is consistently dark. The sound department did an exceptionally fine job with this film – galloping horse hooves, crunching leather chaps, stomping cowboy boots on hardwood floors, and wagon wheels turning on bumpy ground add another layer of meaning.
At 132 minutes, this film runs a bit long and some judicious editing may have been helpful, particularly in the final two segments. The final story, “The Mortal Remains,” hints at linking all the pieces of this film together, i.e., distracting people with stories that are really about them, but appear to be about something else. Even so, the common threads between the six stories are not always apparent, and, while a dazzling cinematic display, it’s not an entirely cohesive whole.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
- Six short westerns take a strange look at life, death, and the law of the land in early America.
- Stars: Liam Neeson, James Franco, Zoe Kazan, Brendan Gleeson, Stephen Root, Harry Melling, Tom Waits, Tyne Daly, Tim Blake Nelson, Bill Heck, Jonjo O’Neill, Chelcie Ross, Saul Rubinek
- Writers-Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
- Genre: Comedy/Drama
- Run Time: 132 minutes
- MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence)
Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.