Rated R, mostly for violence. People shoot each other a lot in this movie. You know how the Coen Brothers like making gore uncomfortably realistic? There's a lot of it here and it just seems sad at times. I'm sure there's language somewhere in here. Also, people treat each other terribly throughout. There's an instance of suicide. I mean, that all kind of leads up to a solid R rating.
DIRECTORS: Joel and Ethan Coen
I just did a podcast on this one! I don't know if I've done an anthology film on this website. I suppose it kind of formats itself. I can break down the individual movies and then give my two cents on the whole thing? That sounds like a plan. It's so weird that this movie wasn't marketed before the whole Netflix deal. Apparently, this movie was only in ten films and made practically nothing. When did the Coen Brothers not get the attention that they deserve? I mean, they're Oscar winners. While some of their movies don't get the same respect as others, I always assumed even the worst Coen Brothers' movie was still watchable. I'm going to spoil my take on this right now. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is pretty darned good. While I love the little effort that I need to watch this movie, I kind of like the idea of this being a box office success. Ah well, I had best just go down the line and give you my analyses of the individual films. After all, apparently there was talk about this being a television show before it was a movie.
"The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" -Hey, the movie starts with the titular short. I was arguing on the podcast about whether or not this one should be the first movie in the sequence. It's so good. It's also what I wanted out of the anthology as a whole. When I watch the Coen Brothers, they offer so many different versions of a movie. You always know that you are watching a Coen Brothers' movie, but that doesn't mean that they are tonally the same. These guys did Hudsucker Proxy and No Country for Old Men. Aesthetically, they are the same guys, but content-wise, they are all over the map. "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" is much more in the realm of The Hudsucker Proxy and that's what I like. While I love me some No Country for Old Men, I will watch and rewatch The Hudsucker Proxy for fun. "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" plays with a trope so well that I kind of want everyone to watch it. The Coens, through Tim Blake Nelson, keep on changing expectations. It's a misdirect of a misdirect. Looking at mise en scene, in particular, costuming, we know that our fourth-wall breaking narrator-hero is a good guy. He says he's rotten, but in a way that seems like Ned Flanders told us the same thing. But then he actually is kind of evil. But the design of the whole story doesn't match the events happening on screen. Buster Scruggs murders folks willy-nilly and that's just part of Scruggs's casual attitude towards death. Death is casual in that narrative. That's an amazing trope break, but then the final trope break plays havoc with the Mary Sue character. Scruggs is a Mary Sue. SPOILER: To have a Mary Sue shot down so unceremoniously is extremely interesting. In the back of my mind, I always wanted to tell the story of "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs." I suppose that every story in this anthology is about death, but "Buster Scruggs" sells it extremely well. It's so bizarre seeing the ending. I love it because it tonally matches, but it is kind of jarring when it comes to the other sequences of the anthology. Regardless, Tim Blake Nelson, for the first time in his career, is perfectly cast. He's great in lots of stuff, but I don't know if there's one story that can only be played by him.
"Near Algodones" -People don't like this one. It's not perfect. It's no "Ballad of Buster Scruggs", but I really like it. The thing that really makes this one suffer is the fact that it is a short. There's something being told here about a guy who has criminally bad luck. When I like James Franco, I really like him. He's great in this. But Franco isn't what gets me in this short. He's the product of circumstance. If the Coens were talking about the odd nature of the West, this movie sells it well. The MVP of this short isn't really James Franco. He's fine, like I said. But Stephen Root is Milton again. Okay, he's not the exact same character, but spiritually there's a lot of crossover. I love the Milton character of this movie. It takes the Milton trope and imbues him with Ridley Scott's Alien. The instant dynamic shift is wonderful. Part of it plays on the same idea that "Ballad" did, but "Algodones" makes the shift very clear from moment one. At no point is Franco's bank robber incompetent or anything. He seems like a perfectly fine bank robber. But the opening scene seems like the cheeriest horror movie I've ever seen. The ninja-like quality of Stephen Root is great. I am still quoting "Panshot!" because of this opening. He's so hilariously scary. That's a unique emotion to elicit. When I giggle because I'm surprisingly nervous, that's an absolutely fantastic feeling. The biggest problem with "Algodones" is that the big reveal is given away in the trailer. I'm not even going to bold "Spoiler" because the trailer sells the whole thing. We know that James Franco is going to be hanged twice. I think that's what the Coens wanted the movie to be about: a guy who unlucky that he keeps getting captured and sentenced to death. It really becomes about two things. The movie should be about surviving the bank heist or the movie should be about the bank robber who keeps escaping death only to be thrown into peril once again. Doing both is a little bit of a cop out. Getting hanged only twice doesn't really sell for me as much as a guy who is about to be hanged five times. Regardless, I still think that this entire sequence is effective. It's fun and a nice chaser from the absolute insanity that "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" offered.
"Meal Ticket" -And now the dark turn happened. I like it. I'm going to defend most of the stories in this anthology and I feel like I have to come to the rescue of "Meal Ticket." It is such a bleak entry to be entered into this collection of stories from the West. This is the Miller's Crossing of the group. It's incredibly somber and depressing. Perhaps I love all of the misdirect happening in all of the sequences. I love me some misdirect and "Meal Ticket" offers a character shift that I didn't see coming. It's not a "smack in the face" transition. The other two offer that. This is a story that plays with what we assume a character is about. SPOILERS: I thought this was a story of a put upon custodian. I should have realized that the story was called "Meal Ticket", but it seems like Liam Neeson's character was this quiet saint. In the course of how many limited minutes, I realized that he's a terrible person. That's pretty great and most of it is done silently. The only real dialogue we get from the two protagonists are the lines that are spoken in the show. They don't talk. We don't get a clear relationship between the two. Harry Melling is just heartbreaking. The way that he is framed as an exhibition is just rough. I'm called back to Tod Browning's Freaks. The use of repetition builds such sympathy for the character. The Artist has talent. But everything is done for him. As talented as he is, he's there because people want to see a quadriplegic. In the few minutes that this movie shows these characters, it comments on the fickle nature of people's need for entertainment. Again, I thought the people were won over by his elocution, but it is simply about the novelty of seeing a limbless man. It is in that montage of repetition that we see the same performances with dimming and dimming expectations. I became the audience who had already seen such a show. And the trade-off is the most painful. Yeah, I wanted to know how the chicken did math too. But the value of human life is so cheap in this world. We always hear how life is cheap in certain parts of the world. "Meal Ticket" is possibly the most effective example of "Show, Don't Tell" that I've noticed when it comes to this theme. It's really hard to watch, but it is completely worth it to study this sequence. The death in both of their eyes is constantly there. I can't believe that Harry Melling was Dudley Dursey. He's so good here and he makes the scene. That's in a two man sequence with Liam Neeson, so keep that in mind.
"All Gold Canyon" -I like all but one of these sequences. "All Gold Canyon" isn't my least favorite. Oddly enough, it was the last one because I didn't get it until someone explained it to me. I'll get to that one is a second. But this is my second least favorite. It's still pretty good, but I also don't really know what this adds to the whole collection besides Tom Waits and pretty scenery. Honestly, "All Gold Canyon" is the prettiest one to look at. I learned a ton about panning for gold, which is fun for me, I suppose. It just doesn't seem as tight as the others. Considering that these are shorts, it is so odd that there isn't a lot of content here. I mean, I can watch Tom Waits talking about Mr. Pocket the entire time, but I kind of want some different structuring throughout. There's a weird Chekhov's Gun that never really fires. Waits steals the egg. He climbs the tree. He takes three eggs, sees the owl, and returns them. If nothing happened from there, I'd be fine with it. But then he still steals and eats one of the eggs. Where's the albatross? I know that he befalls bad luck, but I don't see the correlation between the man and the egg. On top of that, everything kind of works out for Waits, even though he stole the egg. I know, real life doesn't have that direct connection between egg thievery and a man getting shot, but I know the rules. The first two stories took the trope and messed with it. The trope was acknowledged and then subverted. But with "All Gold Canyon", the trope is there, but actively ignored. I also feel like that wasn't meant to be a commentary on the trope. Instead, we have a very lonesome story. If the Coens were talking about how the pioneer was a lonely person, that was accomplished. But having a single character without much of an arc doesn't really feel like a story. Rather, this is a character in a much larger story that is played around with in this story. Are there satisfactory moments? Sure. I would have been straight up mad had he not found Mr. Pocket. But does the miner really learn anything? Does he grow? Is he any different for having found Mr. Pocket? He has something physical to do, which gives him some time killing action. But this story is kind of the equivalent of an old man finally getting his lucky lottery winner, only to have it stolen and then instantly returned. It's not a horrible story; it's just almost not a story. It's character and atmosphere. Give me arcs if its a character thing. You don't need a plot. You just need something.
"The Gal Who Got Rattled" -This segment is almost a movie in itself. I imagine that this was probably a treatment that was just too short to justify a whole film, but it takes up the majority of the film. I really like this one and I really hate this one. The only thing that really pulls me away from it is the length. The thing I really like about anthology films is that they are so compact. There's an attention span that is required. At a whole bunch of points in "Rattled", I kept thinking that I was nearing the conclusion, only to go onwards. I mean, I get it. The story hinges on the relationship between Mrs. Longabaugh and Billy Knapp. We have to believe that they make a reasonable couple to make the conclusion have meaning. Love takes a long time to make it worthy. You could tell us that they are in love, but that almost pulls away from Billy's commitment to the whole affair. Alice is just bizarre enough to be an odd choice for someone like Billy, but not so odd that her character can't exist in this drama. It's so odd, trying classify this story. I couldn't call it a Western rom com because it isn't really funny. Rather, it is a Western romance that has funny parts attached to it. It's so odd to think of this movie with the certain parts. There's the odd comedy and tragedy of President Pierce. There's the comeuppens that is attached to Alice's brother. Mr. Arthur is just a plain old confusing character. On top of that, this is the story of the group that stresses the sprawl of the West. Yet, the West is kind of repetitive. They are on their way to Oregon and you have these absolutely amazing locales. But these locales don't actually tie to the story intimately. Rather, the stress is how open the land is. It's the conclusion that sells the entire piece to me. It's just the right level of tragic. It's a bit much, if I am honest. But that is what I needed after so long a sequence. The conflict between the Native Americans and Mr. Arthur is perfect. We get a little bit of that Mary Sue return with Mr. Arthur. But he makes a mistake. He doesn't make the mistake that Buster Scruggs makes, but he makes one nonetheless. His story, being more grounded, allows the tragedy to take place. The plate at the beginning of the scene is absolutely the best one because it has a dramatic irony on the audience. For once, the movie knows more than I do and it is revealed at the end what the major question will be. I like that a lot.
"The Mortal Remains" -I don't think I've ever felt dumber than having someone explain "The Mortal Remains" to me. Most like a play, the story is the conclusion to the film. It's a lot of dialogue and it felt very much like this was black box theater. It's so weird. Usually, anthologies try ending on a bang. The middle ones tend to be boring and the beginning and end really try to sell the piece. However, "The Mortal Remains" has characters that have all kinds of cadences and accents arguing and bickering with each other. When I exercise, as I was doing when watching this, I watch with the subtitles. Even with the subtitles, there was a bit of a barrier between understanding the true intentions of each characters. I never looked for a twist or an interpretation. I was looking for a straightforward story and I didn't think that this was going to be the Twilight Zone episode of the group. When I discussed with Henson the meaning of the last one, he treated it like everyone was supposed to understand that from the word "go." I mean, it makes a lot more sense now and I wish that I understood that at the time, but now I feel stupid. I was really tempted to rewatch that last sequence before writing this so I could save face, but I also had to acknowledge that the whole obvious title meaning went over my head. Part of it is that I was extremely tired. "The Woman Who Got Rattled" is a lot to take in and I just wasn't in the mood for a slow discussion about love lives and bounty hunters. This is when I needed my "Panshot". This is when I wanted Buster Scruggs to return. I know that people adore this one, but because I missed the point, it did nothing for me.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a good watch. It is so great knowing that Netflix is scooping up amazing stuff that isn't worth ignoring. While it isn't the Coens' best movie, it is a closer return to form that I've seen for a while. I really love anthology stuff and I hope to see more big names attached to Netflix in the coming releases.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.