“Because people connect the stories to themselves, I suppose. And we all love hearing about ourselves. So long as the people in the stories are us… but not us.”
The new Coen Brothers installment is another reminder that the brothers’ strengths are better left with the serious projects. And so with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the quality is found in the silent moments of self-reflection found when comedy has taken for the night and the reality of still life leaves opportunity to contemplate our own demise. Something buried beneath the cheerful misgivings of the characters is profoundly absorbing: something that continues to resurface in what feels like an entangled cycle of moral tales and social critiques on the state of humanity. As Michael Koresky (Film Comment) rightly points out: “[w]ith their multi-part yarn The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Coen Brothers mosey on back to the Old West to survey the eternal disappointment that is man.”
I refuse to delve to deeply into the meaning of each story for this review as I intend to engage with the film moving forward in other ways.
And still, a word.
Beginning with the “Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” we find the threading in the grand design from the ebullient outlaw Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), dubbed a “misanthrope,” although according to him, a misunderstanding: The Misanthrope? I don’t hate my fellow man. Even when he’s tiresome, surly, and cheats at poker. I figure that’s just the human material. Here, in these simple four words, we have a deep truth that mirrors the four words of Nietzsche: human, all too human.
Next, “Near Algodones” – the bank robbing Cowboy (James Franco) overcome by the bullet proof ingenuity of the bank teller, finds himself a survivalist from man’s “justice,” only to return to the gallows of his eventual undoing in a strange state of indifferent fatalism with only the captivation of a pretty girl to inspire.
Next, in “Meal Ticket” – a piercing social commentary on the scales of Huxley’s great savage reserves, where humanity replaces the beauty of prose and poetry with a chicken doing math.
Next, the “All Gold Canyon” – an old man (Tom Waits) hunts for golden treasures, one hole at time, determined and unfettered by his age and the monotony of the chase to find “Mr.Pocket.” He overcomes the human material of another’s opportunism, leaving will bags of wealth and a melody to Mother Machree.
Next, “The Gal Who Got Rattled” – full of melodramatic and warming sentiments about the deterministic life of a young woman (Zoe Kazan) unsure of tomorrows promises and the prospect of marriage. Her own untimely demise pictures that theme of human material as our frailty, facing down fear, behaves in rash consequences even when after life’s moments of rest seem imminent.
And finally, an immensely competent finale in “The Moral Remains” – on their way to Fort Morgan, the bounty hunter (Jonjo O’Neill), bringing back a corpse, sings the tale about lost Molly from the Isle of Man (allusion to Ireland where his partner, Brendan Gleeson, is from) as the annoyed fundamentalist (Tyne Daly) struggles to read her Bible and the windbag trapper (Chelcie Ross) pretends not to be asleep. Here, we return to the great discussion underlying the entire film: people. The trapper says that all people are alike, the fundamentalist corrects him saying men are either upright or sinning, while the Frenchman (Saul Rubinek) describes the two as lucky or unlucky. The frenchman references poker in his almost nihilistic disposition on life, harking back to the first story after Buster Scruggs is forced to play the cards he was dealt because he already saw them (but see: “we must all play our own hand” – frenchman). When Scruggs refused, he overcame the determinancy of the poet in story three, who found his end by the cruelty of another and the coarse changing of times. As the frenchman and the fundamentalist begin to fight, the latter is sent into a spell of choking as the Coens seemingly distil the true nature of the coachman as DEATH, who waits for no man — policy.
I don’t know if people will like the film, but there is certainly something remarkable and hidden deep in the penumbras of each story.