If I really stop to think about it, Joel and Ethan Coen are probably my favorite all around filmmakers because I’ve never seen a movie by them that didn’t make me sit up straight and pay attention.
Even when I didn’t like the end result, I could never say that the movie itself wasn’t fascinating or that it had nothing to offer. Probably my biggest disappointment from the brothers was “Burn After Reading,” because I felt like they never could master the tone they were going for. But even that film includes really interesting performances from George Clooney and Brad Pitt.
All this is to say that I was really looking forward to the release of “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” the latest from the brothers, who were returning to the Western genre for the first time since “True Grit.”
Often Coen Brothers movies are smaller, more indie-style films and we don’t always get them in theaters here. But, like nearly every other artist out there, the Coens have made a deal with Netflix and “Scruggs,” though released in a handful of actual theaters, made its debut on the small screen.
Though I was able to watch the movie immediately, I kind of hate that. I’m afraid this film will disappear and be considered a lesser effort due to the fact that it was released on television. That would be a shame, because “Buster Scruggs” has a lot to offer. The big question is, however — did I like it?
No. In fact, I hated it, while conversely loving nearly every scene. Only a brilliant film could inspire such antagonistic and contradictory feelings.
If you hadn’t read about it already, “Buster Scruggs” is an anthology film — basically six unrelated short stories bound together in one film. From the first scene, this film felt like it was tailor-made for me. The movie opens on an old leather-bound book, and the camera spends time examining each turned page — giving the viewer time to appreciate the beautiful, simple design of the volume.
The invisible reader turns and lingers on a color plate (basically a full-color illustration — there’s one for each story), moving on to a title and the story’s first paragraph before dissolving into the segment itself.
This is kind of a niche interest, I know, but as an artist I’ve always been fascinated with the concept of illustration divorced from context. I even did a couple of shows where my paintings had titles that essentially served as captions, as though the picture were just one snapshot of a larger story.
That’s basically how each segment of “Scruggs” opens and I loved it. I could watch that all day.Unfortunately, you also have to sit through the stories, and I’m not sure I can do that again. Don’t get me wrong. Everything about this film is top-notch. The acting and writing are impeccable, the editing and direction is expertly done, and the production design and cinematography is amazing.
It’s no exaggeration to say that this may well be the Brothers’ most gorgeous film. Every shot is perfect, every color intentional and beautiful. There is so much about this movie that I love. But watching it, I wished the Coens loved their audience as much we do them. Or at least loved their characters.
“Buster Scruggs” is, at times, the most depressing, bleakest, and most pessimistic film I’ve ever seen. It may top even “No Country for Old Men.” At least in that movie, you strapped in for the ride. Here, you have to reset six times, each time hoping against hope that it’ll be better, but it almost never is.
I don’t want to go into each story in detail — they’re short enough that it’d be hard to say much without spoiling them. Think of them almost like mini-episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” except set in the Old West. The first in the lot is the title story, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.”
Right from the beginning, the Brothers fool you into thinking you’re going to watch something along the lines of “O Brother Where Art Thou,” as a Gene Autry-style cowboy comes singing his way out of the badlands.
“But remember,” they seem to be saying, “The West was rough and cowboys carried guns for a reason.”
This first segment feels like a cartoon come to life, in a way — brilliant, but hard to watch.
Next is the James Franco-starring short “Near Algodones,” in which an erstwhile bank robber discovers that Stephen Root’s teller character isn’t going to be a pushover.
Next is “Meal Ticket” starring Liam Neeson. This is the segment where the brothers really settle into their style. The first two segments are charming if difficult — but this was the one where I thought I might just have to turn it off.
This also has a surprise, and surprisingly moving, performance from one Harry Melling, whom you may remember as Dudley Dursley from the Harry Potter series.
There are three tales after that, but I can’t bear to say much about them, because I don’t want to spoil the experience.
I very nearly quit on this film twice, and were it not so amazingly made I would have.
This may be the only time I’ve ever seen a film that I wanted to start over from the beginning in the vain hope that it would be different this time around.
I can’t think of a thing wrong with this film, and yet there’s so many things I would change. I have no doubt my version would be the lesser of the two, but at least I wouldn’t feel punched in the gut.
Grade: Technical — A+, Enjoyability — C- (This would be lower, but while the Brothers are setting you up on the chopping block, they do show you some legitimately fun moments. Unfortunately, they don’t last.)
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is rated R for extreme violence and some language.
Chris Jenness is an art teacher and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.