These are confusing, topsy-turvy times to be a film critic. Exhibit A: “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” This is a film by Oscar-winning, laurel-laden critical darlings (and personal favorites) the Coen Brothers that everyone somehow kept forgetting about within the context of this Venice Film Festival lineup. It is a title co-produced by current industry savior Annapurna Pictures and current industry bête noire Netflix. It’s a movie Venice critics were privileged to see on the big screen that might, hand on heart, feel more naturally at home on the small. And it is an anthology of six segments that comprises two that are as funny as any comedies the Coens have made, two that are as offbeat-involving as any of their more dramatic titles, and two that rank among the worst things they’ve done. Originally rumored to be a TV project made over into a movie (thought the Coens now say that’s not the case), this wildly uneven, um, thing does not have enough connective tissue to make an overall review fair to its better bits while also pointing out the worse. So it’s probably best to take them one by one, safe in the knowledge that posterity, when it watches “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” will probably have a fast-forward button.
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The segments, that run around 15-20 minutes each, are separated into chapters introduced by the lovingly rendered, if not-exactly-new device of a storybook, whose pages are turned to display beautiful old-school illustrations such as might have graced the cover of a Zane Grey paperback. And it starts out on a strong note…
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“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”
… quite literally as Buster Scruggs (a terrific Tim Blake Nelson), clad in a dazzlingly dapper, Roy Rogers-style “movie cowboy” ensemble, shambles into view on horseback, strumming a guitar and crooning in his self-described “pleasing baritone” (Carter Burwell‘s original compositions are one reliably excellent aspect in the whole film). Out here in the scrubby desert, he explains, addressing the camera directly and genially, “the distances are great and the landscape monotonous” and his horse enjoys hearing him sing. But though he looks and sounds like a troubadour (DP Bruno Delbonnel gets to turn in a cute little shot looking out from the inside of his guitar), Scruggs is actually a crack-shot gunfighter, continually underestimated due to his “pleasant demeanor.” Comically unexpected deaths await those who do think the scrawny Scruggs, with his chewy accent delivering deliciously elaborate circum-low-kew-shuns, is nothing to worry about, as a bar full of bristly outlaws and a mountainous Clancy Brown discover to their short-lived dismay. But perhaps what goes around, comes around? Most intriguingly, during one of his chatty asides to camera, Scruggs mentions that the one “sobriquet” which he does not think he’s earned is that of “misanthrope,” a term that has been used by detractors to describe the Coens more than once. Will the movie, with an opening that ends with a heavenly image reminiscent of “The Hudsucker Proxy” be a winking defense of that allegation? [A-]
Well actually, chapter 2 suggests the Coens’ concerns lie elsewhere. Starting with a gimlet-eyed James Franco sizing up a bank that stands alone in the middle of nowhere, it proceeds as a bank robbery that takes an unexpected turn when the banker inside (a hilarious Stephen Root) turns out, like Buster Scruggs, to be handier in defense of his tiny domain than his dorky patter would first have us believe. Maybe the greater project of this “Ballad” is to turn some of the old Western archetypes on their head and to give the side characters that populate the fringes of most Westerns their own moment in the spotlight? Or maybe not, as this short story moves on to follow the (mis)fortunes of Franco’s would-be robber, including a very well-mounted Comanche attack and a predicament involving a noose, a tree, and hungry horse gradually nosing further away in search of a new patch of scrubby grass. Still, at this point, this movie is fun! [B/B+]
That ends fairly sharpish with the weakest segment, that my notes tell me was no longer than most of the others but that felt pretty interminable. Liam Neeson plays a traveling showman whose chief “exhibit”/performer is an armless, legless man (Harry Melling) whom he “found on the streets of London” and who recites swathes of poetry, Shakespeare, the Bible, and the Gettysburg Address to ever-dwindling audiences. Where in other parts, the dialogue crackles with unmistakably Coensian wit, here they make the bizarre decision to keep Melling mute except when he’s powdered and rouged and performing, stagily orating the same monotonous routine, so for much of the time he seems little more than a ventriloquist’s dummy. Neeson has little to act off, therefore and when his money-making potential seems to dry up, and the roguish impresario’s eye is caught by a chicken who can perform basic arithmetic instead, the Coensian misanthropy that segment 1 seemed to suggest was a myth rears its head again, and leaves a pretty sour taste. [C-]
“All Gold Canyon”
Half of those gripes are contradicted by the fourth segment, though, in which a gorgeously gruff prospector played to Stinky Pete perfection by Tom Waits, happens upon a halcyon, verdant valley, and starts to pan for gold in the little river that flows through it. Although here again there’s little for Waits to act off, somehow the peculiar rhythm of this quieter chapter, with its procedural interest in the nature of prospecting for gold, becomes more beguilingly hypnotic than tedious. Or maybe it’s just that Waits, talking to himself, or rather to “Mr. Pocket” the seam of gold he is convinced lies somewhere close by, is a treasure and we could watch him bumble round this little paradise forever. In many ways, this section is the most perfectly self-contained of them all, a little short film that doesn’t feel like it’s straining for quirk, but that absolutely abounds in the kind of off-kilter charm that only the Coens do quite this well. [A-]
“The Gal Who Got Rattled”
Finally, a woman! Zoe Kazan turns in a lovely performance as a demure young Episcopalian who, after the death of her overbearing and unprepossessing brother, is hesitantly romanced by Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), the taciturn good-guy leading her wagon train to Oregon. If the Waits segment is the best short film here, “The Gal Who Got Rattled” is the only one that really feels like it could have been developed into a whole feature, with the world of the wagon-train pioneers being ably evoked in Delbonnel’s lovely wides, and with the humor, mostly revolving around a little dog called President Pierce who won’t stop barking, always remaining this side of zany. Here too, we get another great Native American raid, and a surprising late-hero turn by Knapp’s even-more-taciturn partner Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines). [B+]
“The Mortal Remains”
We end on the most atypical note, with a stagecoach-set story that is such an obvious nod to a “Twilight Zone” or “Tales of the Unexpected“-type tale that even the game cast, including Brendan Gleeson, Tyne Daly, and Saul Rubinek can’t make it feel, well, unexpected. Far from upending the stereotypes of the Old West, this chapter reinforces them to a tedious degree, with Daly playing the starchy, primly moralistic marm, Rubinek the louche, morally-lax Frenchman and Gleeson the golden-voiced Irishman whose main talent seems to be “thumping” people. Not only that, but in feeling like the Coens attempting a kind of gothic horror it is also the segment that most belies the jaunty “Tales of the Old West” vibe that the rest of the film attempts, switching unconvincingly into a genre they haven’t really worked in before and, on this evidence, should probably leave alone in future. [C]
Taken individually, there are cherishable moments and performances scattered throughout “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” like so many flecks of gold amid the silt. But as a whole, the film has to be chalked down to a perplexingly minor addition to one of the most beloved cinematic canons of our time. O Coen Brothers, Where Art Thou? [Overall Grade: B-]
Check out all our coverage from the 2018 Venice Film Festival here.