Awash In The Stream: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Netflix, 2018)

As steaming services play a bigger and bigger role in the film and television industry, a lot of attention is going to their original content–but mainly streaming television shows. What about streaming movies? What hidden gems or washed up flops are hiding under the “___ Original” tab? Lets see what is awash in the stream.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Netflix

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Writers: Joel and Ethan Coen. Based on stories by Jack London and Stewart Edward White

 

      Time to gather ‘round and listen to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Apparently, in between making films, the Coen brothers had a hobby writing short stories. These stories were locked in a drawer, with little thought toward publishing or doing anything with them. Then came a deal with Netflix–first reported as an anthology television show, although it’s not really clear if that changed, or if it was always intended as an anthology movie; perhaps this is an elaborate experiment in bingeing television–and now, these stories have come to the small screen (and, in limited release, to certain big screens). Excerpts from the short stories can be seen in between the segments, and if you pause to read them they actually do add to the segments–including such details like the name of Buster Scrugg’s gun, or really leaning into the unspoken supernatural element of “The Mortal Remains.” In addition to the four Coen brothers original stories, there is also an adaptation of a Jack London short story, and another by Stewart Edward Wright.

      The first segment is the titular Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) is a classic singing cowboy, full of aw-shucks joy and dressed in pristine all-white–and is also the quickest, deadliest gun in the West. Scruggs smiles broadly as he declares that he’s “known to violate the laws of God and man.” The central joke of this segment is the guileless Buster Scruggs slaughtering bands of hardened outlaws, all the while never losing his goofy grin. With his unending optimism and asides to the camera, Buster Scruggs has the energy of a Looney Tunes character, only instead of using elaborate ruses to humiliate his opponents, he shoots them in the head. A highlight would be Buster killing a gambler, then leading the entire saloon in a rousing rendition of “Surly Joe” even as the gambler’s brother cries over his corpse–the most cold-blooded combination of violence and music since the East Coast-West Coast rap feud. This is probably the most accessible of the segments, full of Old West shootouts and Nelson’s performance is just infectiously fun. One can’t help but wonder what someone who somehow didn’t know the film was an anthology would make of the abrupt anti-climax.

       Next up is “Near Algodones,” the tale of an unnamed bank robbing Cowboy (James Franco) who endures several reversals of fate. This segment is an elaborate joke, leading up to the punchline in the final scene. Thematically, this segment is similar to A Serious Man and The Man Who Wasn’t There, touching on random inscrutable fate leading to something like justice delayed. However, the short length trades those films ambition for more straight forward plotting.

      Next up is “Meal Ticket,” the most memorable of the segments. An unnamed Impresario (Liam Neeson) travels from town to town, with roadshow consisting of a single act: The Artist (Harry Melling), who the Impresario advertises as The Wingless Thrush, a limbless actor who recites poems, monologues, and famous speeches. Aside from the Artist’s performances, there is almost no spoken dialogue. The Artist never speaks off-stage, and the Impresario mostly mumbles to audiences members while passing around a hat to collect money. Their act begins to falter, and the Artist finds himself forced to compete with a chicken that can do basic math. While “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” and “Near Algodones” are fairly conventional, “Meal Ticket” is much more experimental and ambiguous. In a film about death, the ending of this segment is the most cynical and brutal, and the one that is the most likely to stick with you.

      “All Gold Canyon” gives Tom Waits the chance to play the Old West gold miner that he was born to be. This segment is sort of a palette cleanser after “Meal Ticket,” and is the most hopeful segment of the film. Some people have said there’s a misanthropic steak in the Coen’s filmography, and the most upbeat segment being a lone miner out in a field, “with no sign of man nor the handiwork of man” is a point there. The ending lacks the punch of other segments.

      “The Gal Who Got Rattled” is straight-ahead tragic romance, star-crossed lovers, undone by a twist of fate and their own naivete and rashness. Gilbert Longabaugh (Jefferson Mays) plans to travel by wagon train to Oregon, with his sister Alice (Zoe Kazan) to pursue a business opportunity, and hopefully marry Alice off to his business partner. But Gilbert dies a few days into the trip, and Alice is left to manage by herself, and figure out what to do when she gets to Oregon. She comes to rely on Mr. Knapp (Bill Heck), one of the leaders of the wagon train, to navigate travel by wagon trail and keep her worker in line. Romance develops between Ms. Longabaugh and Mr. Knapp, in a formal old time way where marriage propositions are about settling acres of land more than undying love. Through it all, the dangers of the wagon trail, where any misfortune can end in death, hang over them.

      And finally, there is “The Mortal Remains.” A Trapper (Chelcie Ross), a Lady (Tyne Daly), and a Frenchman (Saul Rubinek) find themselves on a wagon heading to Fort Morgan. Also on the wagon are an Englishman (Jonjo O’Neill) and Irishman (Brendan Gleeson), self-described ‘Harvesters of souls’ that the Trapper dubs bounty hunters. The obvious, unspoken implication is that the wagon is a journey to the afterlife. Some would call it subtext, but there isn’t anything subtle about it. The harvesters of souls make the trip often, to transport their quarry. Of the other three, the only one with any sort of reason to travel is the Lady–to meet up her husband, who she hasn’t seen in three years due to him being very sick. The text at the beginning of the segment describes the Trapper waking up from a dream he doesn’t remember, with no recollection of planning the trip to Fort Morgan or even boarding the wagon, just a feeling it’s where he belongs. The Lady, the Trapper, and the Frenchman argue over the nature of life, people, and love, with occasional interjections from the Englishman and Irishman. This segment is a sort of epilogue to rest of the film. The central theme, uniting every segment, is death, and this segment is the most explicit exploration of that theme.

       The Ballad of Buster Scruggs covers a lot of ground, from the zany black comedy of the titular “Ballad of Buster Scruggs”, to the stark drama of “Meal Ticket.” The Coens have established their skill with the Western before, and they are firing on all cylinders here.  The Coens are known for crossing and blending genres, and adapt well to the anthology format, hitting multiple tones and genres while still making sure the film is a cohesive whole.

 

Hidden Gem or Washed Up Flop? Hidden Gem