The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs ★★★★½

I’m a run-don’t-walk guy when it comes to seeing any new Coen’s release. I was shown Blood Simple by a maven older brother of a friend when the VHS came out . The same older brother took us to see Raising Arizona in the theater roping us in with “it’s the same guys who did Blood Simple but it’s a comedy.” Each film since has fallen somewhere along their Blood Simple Cormac McCarthy— Raising Arizona Preston Sturgess continuum, and I’ve seen each in the theater. So I wasn’t as filled with my usual priapic anticipation at the news that their latest would be released on Netflix and would be an anthology film.

It’s difficult for an anthology film to be great for the same reason collections of short stories seldom are. The Coens solve this problem with an ingenious structural device of the handsomely illustrated vintage adventure book. (I recall that Disney used the same visual concept ingeniously in The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.) The turning pages of narration and the illustrated plates with pull quotes hook the viewer and effortlessly drag him from one story to the next. With this clever device the Coens won me.

I was one of the last generation to grow up on these books with with buckram covers and elaborate gilt lettering and larded with tissue-protected Technicolor plates done by master illustrators (which seemed to inspire the Coen’s cinematography.) I had Treasure Island and Last of the Mohicans by N.C. Wyeth and Arabian Nights by Mayfield Parrish, Tarzan, and a Zane Grey book. Each was lovingly frayed, had the name of some older aunt or uncle penciled inside in a childish hand, and was musty and redolent of a past era. For me these books are completely saturated with warm, boys-own memories of my childhood. Like creosote they keep a certain part of me impervious from the corrosion of adulthood and modern life.

Nabokov too loved his adventure books, and he writes in his incomparable memoir of his affection as a boy for one such book, a supernatural western adventure called The Headless Horseman or a Strange Tale of Texas by Mayne Reid: “The edition I had remains in the stacks of my memory as a puffy book bound in red cloth, with a watery-gray frontispiece, the gloss of which had been gauzed over when the book was new by a leaf of tissue paper.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if Reid’s tale, was an inspiration for the stories in Buster Scruggs along with Sergio Leone, John Ford, John Huston, Flannery O'Connor, Rod Serling, Ingmar Bergman, Tex Ritter and Tex Avery.

No film of the Coens ping-pongs so much on the Blood Simple Cormac McCarthy— Raising Arizona Preston Sturgess continuum as The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. It’s an album of tall tales, fables, clichés, and tropes. Slapstick gives way to macabre farce and then to tragedy and existential debate.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”: The Coens’ cartoon reduces the absurd Singing Cowboy genre ad absurdum (How was this a thing?) Buster is an aw’ shucks psychopathic clotheshorse on a white horse with a “pleasing baritone” and a surfeit of nicknames. He a cynic and a wiseass: “I gotta set myself up in the undertaking business. Stop doing all the skill work so another man can profit.” He’s dealt the “Dead Man’s Hand,” and shoots the fingers off another one at a time. He kills a man in the mirror and is killed by his mirror image. All while entertaining us with his pleasing baritone.

“Near Algodones”: Should have been called “Near Samarra” because Death had an appointment with James Franco there and later. It features a shootout and indian raid that should be included in the Coen’s audition reel to direct Blood Meridian.

“The Meal Ticket:” An O. Henryesque tale of a promoter/caretaker and a trunk of a man (Harry Melling who as Dudley Dursley was such an asshole in the Harry Potter movies) who declaims 19th century top 40 favorites to dwindling audiences in Revenant bear country I can’t beat A.O. Scott’s description, “Not to spoil anything, but “Meal Ticket” is basically Inside Llewyn Davis with a talented chicken in the Bob Dylan role.”

“All Gold Canyon”: a Technicolor riff on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Jack London and Bambi which asks the question, Why hasn’t Tom Waits been cast as a prospector before now. He enters a prelapsarian valley, steals gold from the ground and eggs from an owl’s nest before repenting and taking just one. He leaves perforated, but richer materially and spiritually.

“The Gal Who Got Rattled”: explores the trope of civilizing the West and ending one’s cowboy ways settling down with a gal he loves. That is until the plan is spoiled by a lovable dog named after that lovable enforcer of the Fugitive Slave Act, President Franklin Pierce.

“The Mortal Remains”: a verbally virtuosic Beckettian chamber piece that makes us reflect on the mercury-quick deaths of the previous five tales. Five people, who may or may not be like ferrets, are traveling and debating. It starts out Stagecoach and ends up The Phantom Carriage.

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