The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Six shorts that are the Coen brothers most direct commentary on their own work yet. The stories all play well on a literal level, but are also wonderfully rife with stand-ins for Joel and Ethan, starting with the titular Buster Scruggs, a singing cowpoke who cheekily addresses the accusations of misanthropy often leveled against the Coens themselves:

“Misanthrope!? I don’t hate my fellow man, even when he’s tiresome and surly and tries to cheat at poker. I figure that’s just the human material, and him that finds in it cause for anger and dismay is just a fool for expecting better.”

The jewel of the collection is Meal Ticket, a story that turns physical disability into a metaphor for an artist’s dependence on financial backing and the whims of an audience. Potentially an expression of the frustration of two auteurs in the dumb franchise era — a wink, maybe, at having to resort to Netflix to get work seen rather than the big screen — it also, like the best short stories of Flannery O’Connor, blends empathy and cynicism, realism and allegory, into something that’s shocking, affecting, and open to a number of interpretations.

In the final story, The Mortal Remains, a pair of bounty hunters describe their working method: one distracts with entertainment, while the other thumps the victims across the head. I doubt there’s a better description of the Coen method out there. These six thumpers are filled with clever camerawork and vintage Coen brothers dialogue, including a debate on whether humans are like or unlike ferrets in The Mortal Remains that I’d put up against anything in their oeuvre. There is so much pleasure to be had here amongst the A Serious Man - style fate. The characters are all doomed, but as the bounty hunter says, “I do like looking in their eyes as they try to make sense of it”

At the close of each story the last sentences of the “book” are shown briefly on screen. The text at the end of the first story suggests, humbly, that the Coen brothers are replaceable, that “There is another kid out there now, somewhere, just learning to sing, and sling a gun, and hoping to earn a legend of his own” who will better them. I hope that’s true, but a career of fucking awesome, wholly unique cinema suggests otherwise.

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