'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs': Some country for old men
Tom Waits playing a grizzled old prospector in a Coen Bros. film: file it under Things That Should’ve Happened 25 Years Ago. The man who has hair on the hair on his vocal cords, who sounds and appears of a time long ago, plays a true loner, a little stooped but certain of foot, hair shock-white like a mall Santa Claus. He’s accompanied only by a donkey as he mutters and sings to himself in a voice that sounds like moss and gravel had a very ugly, ugly baby. And gold, gold, gold is what he’s questing for; he’s questing for gold, gold, gold.
At this point, you’d think a man of his age and posture might kick his boots up in a cabin, a fire in the hearth, whittling away his retirement, but no. Gold. Gold. Gold. He’s spent his life doing this, so why stop now? As a wise man once said, the chase is better than the catch. And his latest catch is in a valley so impossible in its beauty, you’ll wonder if the Coens digitally doctored it. It certainly looks real, with a pleasantly rippling brook winding through unfettered green banks near majestic snow-capped mountains beneath blue skies. You know what it looks like? Some country for old men, that’s what.
Of course, the prospector pockmarks the landscape with holes, searching for a lucrative vein he affectionately names “Mr. Pocket.” He eventually narrows down the geography to a reasonable probability of striking it rich. “I’m old,” he says to Mr. Pocket. “But you’re older.”
Nothing comes easy in a Coen Bros. film, though. Ever. Comically exaggerated as their style can be, their work is frequently cut with bleak pessimism and/or grim irony. Without suffering, who are we? they seem to ask every frame or two in every film they make.
The prospector’s story is one of six Old West-set shorts in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” which bears a subtitle, “and Other Tales of the American Frontier.” His is one of the other ones. The prospector is not Buster. No, Buster headlines a different tale. He’s a troubadour on horseback who sings directly to the camera, narrating his adventures. And if anyone can put the “dour” in “troubadour,” it’s the Coens, who, with this skit, are typically, glibly deconstructive, and very aware of themselves and how they’re making cliches more interesting simply because they’re the Coen Bros., and they’re inscrutable.
Buster is played with typically goofy gusto by Tim Blake Nelson, one of the lead oafs in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, which this film resembles in tone. The character is the type who’s just looking for a poker game, but usually gets more than that. But he’s also more than ready for more, and is a dead shot with a sidearm, and deadly disarming with his toothy smile.
You’ll wish you could spend more time with these characters, who populate colorful vignettes in this anthology, originally intended to be a Netflix series, instead cut to 132 minutes of film -- if one can call streamed digital bits “film” anymore, of course. But if the Coens are the ones creating the content to be streamed, it is at least film-like, in the sense that “film” implies heady artistic intent. And I wished I could have seen Waits in that valley and Nelson in a gorgeous rugged desert canyon on a screen bigger than my TV.
I digress. As anthologies usually go -- even those sketched, conducted and arranged by the Coens -- some stories are more effective than others. One, in which James Franco attempts to rob a bank tended by the wiliest teller in the West, exists essentially as an excuse to stage one shot. It’s a doozy, grim and exquisitely photographed, but mostly grim.
Another casts Liam Neeson as a caretaker for a great traveling orator (Harry Melling) who has no arms and legs but needs someone to help wrangle the appendage with which males relieve themselves. That’s the Neeson character’s job. That’s his life. And the crowds gathering to hear the man gorgeously read from Shakespeare and Shelley, well, they’re dwindling.
That story is depressing, but effective. The remaining two are just as poignant. One posits five characters in a stagecoach, my favorite being a trapper (Chelcie Ross) who has so obviously not talked to humans much lately, and makes up for it, at the expense of his fellow passengers. When the Coens write a verbose character, it’s the most succulent chocolate for the sweet teeth of our ears, or something. One passenger (Tyne Daly) is terrifically, Biblically judgmental of others. Another (Saul Rubinek) is a terrifically condescending Frenchman. The other two -- well, I won’t reveal their nature, but they sing cherubically, with terrifying beauty.
That story ends bleakly. The best of the six I’ve saved for last. It’s anchored by Zoe Kazan, whose capacity for sincerity, and therefore the solicitation of our affection, seems boundless. Her character, Alice Longabaugh, finds herself significantly burdened and summoning her wits on a wagon train after her brother passes away suddenly. But one of the group’s guides, Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), wins her heart by reciting a tender monologue about the uncertainty of everything, a Coenesque romance if there ever was one.
Besides the Old West setting, the common thread of these stories is the inevitability of death, which was all over the old Westerns, you no doubt realize, albeit with less blatant existentialism. (Except for The Man with No Name films. Or maybe “The Searchers.” Or “High Noon.” And “Unforgiven.”) Funny then, how funny these characteristically tragicomic Coen tales can be, assuming the tragic folly of existence tickles your funny bone, and doesn’t wither your soul.
‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’
MPAA rating: R for some strong violence
Cast: Tim Blake Nelson, Zoe Kazan, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Run time: 132 minutes