Coens Cook Up Another Classic
Despite their recent displacement by comic book movies, rom-coms and biographical dramas, I still have a soft spot for Westerns. Now, an anthology western, with six stories over the course of two hours? It’s definitely up my alley; I’m all for short-and-sweet stories, but I’m also willing to sit down for a couple hours if the movie’s good enough. Beyond that, I’ve always loved the imagery and ideology of Westerns… and the work of the Coen Brothers.
If you haven’t heard of them, the Coens are best-known for writing and directing Fargo, O' Brother Where Art Thou, and The Big Lebowski. Fargo is especially notable for inspiring a four-season ongoing television series. I actually got to watch O' Brother Where Art Thou, an adaptation of the classic Greek myth The Odyssey, during English my freshman year.
So, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a new Netflix release, makes sense as a movie review for multiple reasons. I can comment on the Netflix-theatre “war,” the film itself, the Coen Brothers’ directorial style, and old-fashioned film genres.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has, as said before, six different stories; as a result, it delves further into the actual day-to-day life of the Old West, much more than most shoot-em-up, horse-rustling Westerns.
Each of the six stories has its own aesthetic- setting, tone and theme. And with the stories ranging from about seven minutes to thirty, telling you even one story detail for each of them could ruin your enjoyment of the piece.
But I will talk about the range of settings- from plains to flat desert to spring-fed mountain valleys. While some parts display the natural beauty of the West, others have rather drab and depressing backdrops, all purposely-tailored to the meaning of the story in question.
The Coen Brothers have always offered an off-kilter view of American life, but this time they offer an eclectic view of the time of Manifest Destiny. The Coens are known for transposing inhuman cruelty against a backdrop of simple living in films like Fargo and No Country for Old Men. A further extension of this theme is the main plot of The Big Lebowski- a laid back every man being dragged into the world of organized crime. The Coens have a keen interest in the preservation of innocence, even in the face of such cruelty and hardship. As a matter of fact, O' Brother Where Art Thou, the aforementioned Greek myth adaptation, is odd among the Coen Brothers’ other popular films, for having an actual part of the story where the main characters legitimately lose hope. The abyss is a step in the Hero’s Journey, invented by the mythologist Joseph Campbell; it’s that exact part of the story where the hero loses motivation in the middle of their quest. The Coens are notable for having mostly-static heroes, who don’t experience much of a moral or ideological change, or a loss of hope (and therefore an at-least temporary loss of innocence), and are forced to face off with villains who are treated more as forces of nature than as actual people.
This movie is notable for having no true villains, perhaps because of the sketch-like nature of each part. As a result, the stories are much more introspective than the average Coen Brothers’ film; mortality, humanity and struggle are all laid out bare and given no easy solution or justice. A man murders another in cold blood, and he never gets his comeuppance in the end; his time in the police car, or as it would be in the Old West, his place on the noose within a few days’ time. Each part of the anthology seems darkly comedic in one way or another, but they each have their own cinematic value.
In my opinion, it’s easy to just sit through the whole movie and absorb each chapter’s message, and still easily find one that’ll be your favorite. I think that’s the meaning of an anthology, and this film also does everything a Coen Brothers’ movie or a historical movie should do: remind the viewers of the directors’ other works while finding a unique niche for itself, and providing a window into the ways of life of the past. The film isn’t a spectacular piece of filmmaking, but it does its job, and it definitely brought on some nice stars; James Franco, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, and a few more obscure actors. I definitely recommend the film to anyone with a love for Westerns and stylized filmmaking, and a few hours to kill.
By:: Tyler Colborn