Coen Bros. draws guns and laughs in six-part existentialist western film
NEW YORK – There are not one but two owl fighters credited in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”. This isn’t too surprisingly, as Joel and Ethan Coen’s new film probably has the best performance by an owl I’ve ever seen.
“We definitely loaded him with animals,” Ethan Coen said at a press conference at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center on Thursday, where “Scuggs” had its North American premiere before heading to selected theaters and, simultaneously, Netflix in November. 16.
“Flies are very difficult to work with,” older brother Joel joked, before admitting that “when you make a western 90 percent of the time all you care about are the horses.”
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is not a typical western, as are the American Jewish geniuses born in Minnesota behind “The Big Lebowski”, “Fargo”, “A Serious Man” and “No Country For Old Men” the are. t typical filmmakers.
Their resume defiantly breaks boundaries, and this latest is a six-part tour of the Western genre through different lenses. It’s a good fit between the Coen’s talents and the Netflix distribution format, because, let’s face it, sometimes it’s hard to get two hours straight at home without hitting pause a few times.
The individual stories have no connection to the plot, but there is a flow. Each of the shorts, some written 25 years ago, is a different tonal subgenre. “It’s like listening to songs on a record album,” Joel offered.
The first “track” is the catchy riff that takes you by the throat: an absurdly crazy shoot-em-up with a singing outlaw / wordsmith played by Tim Blake Nelson. The second section is still a riot, but a little less goofy, with James Franco as a bank robber with cosmic bad luck. Things Settle In (the album’s first slow) for a puzzling story about a frontier theater impresario played by Liam Neeson. It took me hours later to realize how deceptively sad and meaningful this short was, kind of like a tune you have to sit down for a bit before it gets stuck in your ear.
After that: splendor. A beautiful, simple and repetitive (easy to dance?) Section featuring Tom Waits as a gold digger in the Colorado mountains. (This is where this owl comes in.)
Probably the simplest “story” comes next; a sad wagon train love saga starring Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck, an angry tribe of Comanche Indians and a rambling, yippie dog.
“Driving oxen is… not easy,” Ethan said mysteriously of this section of the film. “There were times I would ask if the oxen could do something specific, and the person handling them would glance back at me. “
The film’s final sequence is almost a play, taking place on a very spooky stagecoach ride starring Tyne Daly and Saul Rubinek, among others.
Fans of the Coen brothers’ work will be delighted with “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” because it offers so much variety on what they do well. He regularly jumps between moments of talkative absurdity and dusty existentialism. So many lines beg to be cited.
While most will see it at home on Netflix, the vast western skies, painted deserts, and prairie plateaus aren’t just there to make the scenes look pretty. The enormity and, at times, the cruelty of nature is a constant presence in interaction with the characters. (Except for the silly opening sequence that takes place against an intentionally mock 1950s-style setting, which Ethan called a “dumb movie town.”)
To that end, it’s a shame that only people living in big cities have a short window to see it on the big screen. (And even then, how much are likely to shell out for a ticket when they get access to it with their Netflix subscription?)
But it is the market that must be made for projects like these to be carried out. A more traditional studio probably wouldn’t shell out the money for such an odd project.
I don’t really have a practical, concise comment to offer on this before I spit out tobacco juice, but I bet Joel and Ethan Coen do.