An amiable-looking man with a weather-worn face ambles on his horse singing to his heart’s content and frequently pausing to leer and say something to the audience. His white cowboy suit is a pleasure to the eyes and it does away with any trace of negativity while adding some theatricality to the shots instead, amplified by an equally amiable and theatrical horse. Even for those who are not much acquainted with the Coen brothers, it doesn’t take long to tell that something is going to happen – a white man in cowboy attire can’t just be there. The landscape itself seems to be asking for it.
‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs‘, originally slated to be a TV series on Netflix, gets delivered to you in the form of an anthology of six tales, supposedly straight out of the book of the ballad of Buster Scruggs. There is something very Henry Lawson about it. But then, if you know about the made-up Yiddish folktale in ‘A Serious Man’, then you would know that the Coen brothers probably believe that mythologies always don’t come down to us, but are also made by us in the process. But what is absolutely jarring in this otherwise movie with the trademark Coen self-effacement is that there are almost no women, and most importantly, the Native Americans get very unfair treatment.
This is evident from the defensive tone of some very established film critics who are white. One such critic, for example, relies on his old authority to decide for himself that the one laughter by that one Native American at the first hanging setup in ‘Near Algodones’ is enough presence of Native American voice in the movie. This is especially troubling at a time when white young adolescents find it okay to charge at Native American elders at Native American rallies, and the President of America thinks that it is okay to pull a joke at a massacre of indigenous people. As for the women, well, it is not that the Coen brothers have been Tarantino-esque in their representation of women.
But the ‘Ballad of Buster Scruggs’, developing over a period of 25 years and being almost a culmination of their private Western vision, fails miserably in rectifying the faults of the Westerns 50 years back. The only woman we get to hear before ‘The Girl Who Got Rattled’ is a whore in ‘Meal Ticket’ who asks the Impresario (Liam Neeson) whether the Artist, or the stump that he had been reduced to, would like some sex or not, something to be decided by the former since there is no verbal communication between the Impresario and his charge. Speaking of the ‘Meal Ticket’, the knowing, part-incredulous part-resigned look on the face of the Artist played brilliantly by Harry Melling of Dudley Dursley fame as the Impresario proceeds to take him out of the cart for one last time would haunt you for a long time. The dehumanization in the face of money, whether of the disabled body, or of the artist bound by money-hungry managers struggling in an increasingly overpopulated world to stay relevant. It would have been interesting to see how a disabled actor would have portrayed the Artist though.
It is hard to pick a personal favorite from among the stories. Billy Knapp says in ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled’ that there are no certainties. At least in this life. And with putting perspectives up and then dismantling them with equal elan, the directors build that as the one theme connecting all the stories together – you might as well believe something and act on it, but the old helplessness at fate is true. ‘The Girl Who Got Rattled’ is the longest piece in the segment, and might also be the weakest, simply because of the fact that in spite of some incredible acting by Zoe Kazan, it gives off the feeling of being half baked, like somebody showing you the most important bits from a complete film, like the directors, were trying too hard to prove an editing point since they are most famous for their impeccable storytelling through their editing.
In this department, it is the past story that soars and scores impeccably is the last. It is a veritable bringing together of some elusive thematic threads. 5 people travel in a coach driven by a mysterious driver and spectral horses that never stops no matter what, on its way to Fort Manor, a repeatedly featuring location in this film. 2 of them, identifying themselves as reapers of souls instead of the conventional bounty hunter, tells the 3 other passengers what it is like to look at souls negotiating between life and death before they commit that final act that gives them away. Those who have ever encountered a professional storyteller worth their salt would be best able to appreciate the eyes of Jonjo O’Neill, a noted thespian and a delightful addition to the Coen coterie. The ending leaves you asking for more, but then death itself supposedly leaves things incomplete, no?
Those saying that ‘All Gold Canyon’ departs from this theme of the inevitability of fate, or death more specifically, overlook the fine point of the inevitability of the sneak’s death. It is not surprising, considering that Tom Waits’ prospector takes over the tale. You want this old man who treats old pockets like old mates and gives back owls their eggs to desperately win, a beautiful indulgence because after ‘Meal Ticket’. Moving on to the soundtrack by the Coen brothers’ veteran Carter Burwell, it is a masterpiece. Tim Blake Nelson lends his pleasing baritone in the first story, and the duet with Willie Watson is a truly harmonious piece. The ballads are an important part of the American imagination, or of any settler colony imagination for that matter, is proven by the less trained but precisely more melancholy because of the rawness, of the last piece.
‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs‘ is difficult to review within a set word limit without the editing genius of the Coen brothers. Nevertheless, it is a commendable 133 minutes reflection on the futile of pleasant ballad that life is, us always hoping for something better in the end while ignoring the comicality and the absurdity of it all, like the bank robber who hangs instead for being spotted with a rustler whom he had just met and who had saved his life ‘the first time’.