The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (London Film Festival)

Posted: October 15, 2018 in Cinema

Writers and directors: Joel and Ethan Coen


Being one for whom Joel and Ethan Coen can do no wrong (okay I may be overlooking The Ladykillers), every new film from the Brothers seems to me like a major event, but The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, already a prize winner at the Venice International Film Festival, turns out to be a major, major event. 

An anthology of six short stories set during America’s pioneering days in the second half of the 19th Century, the film looks at first to be paying homage to the traditions of the Old West. However, on closer inspection, it is not doing that at all. It is paying homage, both highly critically and deeply cynically, to Old Hollywood and its classic Westerns of the ‘30s-‘50s, now largely consigned to the dustbin of political incorrectness, but still embedded firmly in American and world culture.

At times it feels as if the Brothers are acting as tour guides, leading us around every landscape and every studio set once trodden on by John Ford. All the clichés are here too: sharp-shooting cowboys, a gun dual, a lynch mob, whisky-drenched saloons, travelling entertainers, gold prospectors, a wagon train, a stage coach. All here but spiked with savage and unexpected twists. Here also are scenes, shocking to more enlightened modern audiences, of Native Americans portrayed as marauding Red Indian savages. If these scenes prove to be controversial, we have to ask how could the Coens have highlighted the massive injustices done to a noble race by the film industry without illustrating what those injustices were.

The film’s title is also that of its first segment, a riotously funny tale of a singing gun slinger (Tim Blake Nelson), a character in the mould of Roy Rogers or Gene Autry. It is followed by Near Algodones, also jokey, in which a bungling bank robber (James Franco) finds his nemesis. Now the film gets darker with Meal Ticket, a profoundly disturbing story, told in dimly-lit scenes, of a travelling impresario (Liam Neeson) and his limbless star attraction (Harry Melling), who recites pious tomes to dwindling saloon bar audiences. This segment is the stuff of nightmares.

All Gold Canyon is lighter and marked by glorious cinematography (Bruno Delbonnel), as a prospector (Tom Waits) searches painstakingly for gold and battles to protect his find. The cinematography is also stunning in The Gal Who Got Rattled, the story of a young woman (Zoe Kazan) who, along with her brother and his noisy Jack Russell terrier named President Pierce, joins a wagon train heading for an uncertain future in Oregon. This is the longest and most engaging segment incorporating action, romance and tragedy among the contradictory elements that once filled Western movies, accompanied by a lush orchestral score by Carter Burwell, in the style of Aaron Copland.

The film’s ending is as dark as its beginning is light. The Mortal Remains could be described as a journey through Purgatory to Hell. The passengers on a stage coach which has a dead body on its roof are a lady (Tyne Daly), an Irishman (Brendan Gleeson), and Englishman (Jonjo O’Neill), a Frenchman (Saul Rubinek) and a trapper (Chelcie Ross). It is a doom-laden conversation piece that remains deliberately enigmatic.

Throughout the film, human life is a cheap commodity. The Western cinema genre, which forms a key part of America’s cultural heritage is laid bare and, as a consequence, all the arguments of politicians who eschew compassion in favour of greed and champion the right to bear arms are exposed as empty. It seems as if the Coens are posing the intriguing question of whether the ailments afflicting modern America are rooted in its history or in Hollywood, which proliferated and magnified flimsy myths and legends. With all this in mind, I am now leaving this site for a couple of weeks to visit the Deep South and Tame (?) West of the USA. Wish me luck!

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