December 2018 – January 2019

Noted

‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

By Craig Mathieson
For their Netflix debut, the Coen brothers return to the Western

“The western is the simplest form of drama – a gun, death,” the legendary Hollywood filmmaker Howard Hawks told Joseph McBride in the 1982 interview book Hawks on Hawks. At first glance The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, an anthology Western written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, overextends the dictum; there are so many guns and so many deaths that the drama initially struggles to establish itself.

But, as repeatedly the case in their now sprawling body of work, the Coens use excess as a form of coolly detached camouflage. Observe the first character encountered, the titular singing cowboy played by Tim Blake Nelson. Riding through a Monument Valley–worthy landscape and dressed as if he’s about to perform at the Grand Ole Opry, Buster is a loquacious guide who is also a preternaturally gifted gunslinger; he casually shoots every possible trigger finger off the drawing hand of one adversary.

Buster is an absurd, almost alien, figure, but the point he makes about America’s 19th-century frontier is salient: it’s ludicrously easy to die there (an American trait that endures). The second story, featuring James Franco as a budding bank robber, lets you observe with amusement as he repeatedly risks his mortality, leaping from an imminent lynching to an attack by Comanche warriors. It is silly to the point of slightness; you never learn a thing about the character or his motivations.

Working with French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, the Coens shoot these scenarios with panoramic vistas and expressive framing. The film-making is so seductively assured that it’s easy to miss the escalation of the emotional stakes. The further the film progresses, the more sombre and intimate it becomes. In the middle two stories, Tom Waits and Liam Neeson play ageing Wild West dwellers whose respective good and bad intentions exist in a narrow spectrum where survival requires the harshest of actions.

With their Netflix debut, the Coens have used the anthology structure to not just tell a spread of stories but also chart a transition from the ridiculous to the sublime: the codes of the Western are first mocked and then dissected. Introducing female characters adds to the insight, with the fifth – and finest – part following a put-upon young woman, Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan), who loses her domineering brother while making the dangerous wagon train passage to Oregon, and starts to discern the future’s possibilities. The prairie has a melancholic loneliness that’s reflected in Kazan’s eyes.

It’s easy to die in the pocket universe of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, but the realisation is difficult. The final story follows a stagecoach with a metaphysical destination, where the passengers debate right and wrong. The entire scene is bathed in a glaucous blue-grey light that’s as otherworldly as Buster Scruggs, but more convincing. The Coens remain true deceivers.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.

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