When fans of the work of the Coen brothers, to whom I certainly also belong, found out that the Netflix streaming service ordered a miniseries from the Coens, then everyone was immediately alarmed. After all, the Coens had never filmed a series before. Yes, the series “Fargo” is directly related to their 1996 film “Fargo”, but the brothers in this series acted only as producers and had nothing to do with either writing the script or staging. And now – the Cohen series.
However, before the Venice Film Festival in 2018, it turned out that for some reason the series was re-edited into one long film, which consists of six short stories – according to the number of planned episodes. What happened, why the series turned into a movie – we were not told. But somehow it doesn’t really look like six episodes were somehow cut and put into one picture – and it doesn’t look like the Coens, and it doesn’t look like the film either. Most likely, all this was originally filmed precisely for the format of a full-length film. However, we were not told any details, so we can only guess.
Despite the fact that the film is called “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”, Scruggs is not at all the connecting character of all six novellas. Moreover, these novels are not connected in any way, and they are very different in style: the first novel is a kind of goofy and black-humor parody of a western, while the final novel ends as a gothic horror.
The picture begins with the book “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Other Stories of the Wild West” appearing in the frame, and then a certain hand turns the page and the audience sees an illustration from the book with some very characteristic phrase for the story being told. After each story, the book will reappear with a hand turning the page.
History first. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”. Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) travels through the Wild West in a dazzling white suit and white hat. He loves to sing and demands to be called the Nightingale of San Saba. Buster is also a very fast and accurate shooter. However, in the end, there may be someone who is faster.
The second story. “Under Algodones”. A man (James Franco) is trying to rob a bank. And in doing so, it will run into problems.
History the third. “Entrance for food”. An impresario (Liam Neeson) drives an actor (Harry Melling) through the small towns, who is called “The Flightless Thrush. Professor Harrison” in the posters. The actor reads poetry to the most respectable audience. However, fees are constantly falling, and the impresario believes that something needs to be done about this.
History four. “The Whole Gold Canyon”. In a beautiful canyon, a prospector (Tom Waits) is trying to find a gold-bearing “pocket”: whoever can find it will make a fortune on it.
History fifth. “The Girl Who Got Scared” Alice Longbow (Zoey Kazan) and her brother Gilbert (Jefferson Mays) are on their way to Oregon with a caravan of settlers. The caravan is led by two very experienced people – Mr. Arthur (Grenger Hines) and Mr. Knapp (Bill Heck).
Story six. “Remains”. A road carriage with five strangers on their way to Fort Morgan. On the same sofa sit two strange, smartly dressed men who love to sing – a British (John O’Neill) and an Irishman (Brendan Gleeson). Opposite them are a trapper hunter (Chelsea Ross), a respectable lady (Tiny Daly) and a Frenchman (Saul Rubinek).
What’s great about the Coens is that you never know what to expect from them. They are equally at home in any genre: compare, for example, the meditative drama The Man Who Wasn’t There, the screwball comedy The Big Lebowski, the powerful drama No Country for Old Men, and, for example, the tragicomedy Burn After Reading.
They can also shoot pictures that are quite difficult to understand, actually philosophical parables like the movie “A Serious Man” or defiantly simple, purely contemplative pictures like “Long Live Caesar!”.
This is not the first time they have turned to the theme of the Wild West. Eight years ago, they shot a wonderful adventure drama “Iron Grit”. And now – the history of the Wild West, six completely different short stories.
Interestingly, when I got this film and I invited my wife to watch it, she asked what the name of the film was and what it was all about. I replied that I didn’t remember the name, and that I didn’t find out what it was about, because I would watch the new Coen film anyway – regardless of the plot. They won’t disappoint me. They never disappoint me.
The first novel features the incredibly colorful actor Tim Blake Nelson, who has already starred with the Coens in the film “Oh, where are you, brother?”. I have his favorite role – in the crazy black-humor comedy “Velcro”. By the way, Tim Blake Nelson is also a well-known independent director. For example, he directed the film “Grass”, which I really liked (Edward Norton shone there, who played two completely different roles at once).
This novella is very colorful and funny. Buster’s manner of speaking is incredibly funny, and he sings in the same manner. High-speed firefights parody traditional genre cliches, and Buster’s ingenuity in a situation where he finds himself without a weapon is something with something!
The second short story with an unsuccessful bank robbery is made in a slightly different vein. It’s more of a black humor tragicomedy. James Franco, with all my more than cool attitude towards him, is quite in place here. But the most super is a banker talking about previous robbery attempts. He was played by the wonderful actor Stephen Root. With him there is an absolutely magnificent episode.
The third novella “Entrance for food” is a pure drama with a completely poignant role of Harry Melling. Very sad, but brilliantly staged.
The fourth story with the prospector is rather simple. Just in the spirit of the usual stories about gold diggers. But it’s absolutely amazing from a visual standpoint. In addition, Tom Waits plays the prospector, and I am ready to look at Tom Waits even without amazing views, and indeed without any views at all.
The fifth novella, with the frightened girl, is the longest and, in the opinion of some critics, a little too long. And as for me, this slowness is fully justified by the fact that at the end of the novella the action is madly accelerated and here everything works as if in contrast. The quiet girl, who seems to be so defenseless all of herself, but at the same time is quite able to manipulate people, was played by Zoe Kazan, a very characteristic actress, whom I recently saw in the excellent series What Olivia Knows. A romantic story, filmed in a completely Cohenian spirit: you will never guess how it will all end there.
Many reviewers unanimously compare the sixth short story with Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. The same people in the carriage, also talking, also representatives of certain professions. Well, I don’t know, if you follow this logic, then all the films about the Wild West, where someone rides in a carriage and chats, are like The Hateful Eight. But the Coens always have their own, completely authorial style, and, in my opinion, there are no intersections with Tarantino.
The conversations of the characters in the carriage are just brilliant! A mannered Englishman, a funny Irishman, a chatty trapper (a story about his wife is just class), a pious lady, a sarcastic Frenchman. The most chic are the English and the French. Moreover, Saul Rubinek played the Frenchman – a good actor, whose career, alas, did not particularly work out. (Those who remember the funny old comedy “Youth, Hospital, Love” probably well remembered the very cool assistant of Dr. Ludwig Floyd Kurtsman.)
Moreover, this novel ends with a kind of hint of gothic horror, but is nevertheless accompanied by all sorts of black humor. And in it, in fact, there are all sorts of interesting allegories that I would like to discuss (and there may be different interpretations), but we will not do this in the review to avoid spoilers, but we will talk already in the postscript to the review.
Some reviewers have reviews that, they say, not in all the short stories of the Coens, as they say, they lasted, there are some short stories – cool, and others – it is not clear why they were filmed.
I never agree with this. As for me, all novels are brilliant. And here it is just very interesting that the styles are completely different, and each short story has something of its own, some kind of its own special zest. Yes, and they were filmed in completely different ways: the Frenchman Bruno Delbonnel worked for the Coens, who at one time staged “Amelie”, and had already worked with the Coens in the film “Inside Llewyn Davis”.
In general, I liked it very much. And I will revisit. But at the same time, I understand that this is quite a niche product. Some may be annoyed by the diversity of styles, others don’t like the fact that some stories look like they are cut off, others don’t understand the Coens at all – well, it happens. But in my opinion, this is an absolutely wonderful movie, and I am convinced once again that the Coens never disappoint. (Yes, we remember that at one time I didn’t get into the movie “Oh, where are you, brother?”, But here we must take into account that I watched it in dubbing, and dubbing any picture can simply be killed, like mine at one time this happened with the wonderful film “The Honor of the Prizzi Family”).
By the way, about dubbing. I have no idea how this picture will look dubbed. Because the intonations of the actors are extremely important here, the pronunciation is very important here. I listened to how Tim Blake Nelson was being dubbed – yes, all the flavor was gone to death. But, by the way, the conversation in the carriage in dubbing just listened very well: they hit the intonation with the hunter, and the Frenchman was given the appropriate accent.
Whether you watch it or not is up to you. But fans of the work of the Coens, of course, must watch strictly.
PS Now let’s talk about the latest, sixth, story for those who have already watched the movie. There are many interesting moments in this story. First, pay attention to the speech of the trapper. This is not a redneck hunter who spent his whole life sitting in the forest. The speech is very figurative, the vocabulary is the richest. Either he became a hunter after some events in his life, or something else, but this is by no means a redneck. Although it seems that the image itself speaks of a completely different thing.
The old lady clearly says that there are only two types of people – the righteous and the sinners. The Briton later says that there are only two types of people – the living and the dead.
The Frenchman tells the story of when he was forced to play other people’s cards. In the first novel, Buster was forced to play other people’s cards.
In the finale, when they find themselves in front of an ominous hotel, there is a feeling that they will now fall into purgatory. Moreover, these are three completely different types: a redneck hunter (the devil knows who he was before), a respectable lady who considers herself a righteous woman and is waiting for a meeting like with her husband, but in fact – with the Creator, a Frenchman is a lover of pleasures, card player and all that. All three find themselves in a completely equal situation. And the British and Irish, who turn out to be bounty hunters, are obviously archangels: that’s why they go to the hotel with jokes and jokes and with the corpse of the one they hit with a punishing sword.
It is clearly shown that the coach driver is taking away all their belongings. And why do they need things before purgatory, right?
At the very end, they showed the smirk of this Frenchman and the fact that he put on his head a bowler hat that had come from nowhere and closed the doors of the hotel. I regarded this as the fact that the Frenchman is from the company of archangels, he was, like, undercover. The wife decided that he was an ordinary person and simply demonstrated the lightness of his character – they say, they don’t give a damn, we’ll break through.
All this would be interesting to discuss. Because the Cohens – they are very rarely simple, only when they themselves want it.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs movie meaning
Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen Cast: Zoe Kazan, Tiny Daly, Granger Hynes, Jefferson Mays, Saul Rubinek, Ralph Inensohn, Brendan Neeson, Tyne Daley, Harry Melling, Bill Heck, Chelsea Ross, Clancy Brown, Tim Blake Nelson, Tom Waits, Liam Neeson, James Franco, Stephen Root
Tragicomedy, USA, 2018, 132 min.