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Opinion | The Good, the Bad, the Coens

There's never been a film quite like this, an anthology of six cowboy-stories made by Joel and Ethan Coen to discuss the human condition like only they can

‘The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs’ is an ode to the Coen brothers’ regular refrains.
‘The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs’ is an ode to the Coen brothers’ regular refrains.

Death is a funny thing. Sometimes literally. One of the first killings in The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs—a film directed by nimble American gunslingers Joel and Ethan Coen—is a moment of exhilarating, shocking slapstick, a Three Stooges-like flash of elaborately orchestrated chaos but with a stronger punchline, where a man falls brutally and hilariously to his death. How this happens is plain to see (and to marvel at), but “Why?" is a trickier question, one that the Coens pose while laughing at us for taking it seriously. When it comes to these brothers, we’re the stooges.

At first glance, this anthology film made for Netflix—out on 16 November—appears like a diversion, minor entertainment tossed off by two geniuses taking a breather from their odd, existential filmography. These are six Westerns filmed so lovingly by Bruno Delbonnel that they don’t even pretend to look realistic: these are paintings, lyrical and spellbinding, a frontier more dreamt than captured, evocative of whittled wood and illustration, closer to the work of Norman Rockwell and Grant Wood than any rival cinematographers. This sunlight is a caress through a cowboy’s hair, not a glare.

This may be why Buster Scruggs, one of the most wanted men in the West, doesn’t feel the need to squint. Clad in spotless white and played by Tim Blake Nelson, forever immortalized by the Coens in O Brother, Where Are Thou? the star of the first story doesn’t mind the price on his head but takes umbrage to being called a misanthrope. Comically quick on the draw, Scruggs is an irresistible character, a balladeer taking on all comers, forever up for a challenge. Is this first story then—guns aside—a tale of the successful artist, who seeks only the right label and, above all else, awaits a worthy competitor?

The film is cut up into chapters from a book, the kind you’d find on your grandfather’s shelf, clothbound lore that contains as much honour as it does irony. These are ballads, hearsay disguised as heroism, stories that vary in length and style, meant to make you shake your head—one way or another. In form, this resembles Damián Szifron’s must-see Argentinian drama Wild Tales, an anthology film with six stories about revenge (also streaming on Netflix), but the theme is less overt. The Coens may have loaded their six-shooter with country-Western heartbreak, yet this might be their most personal film.

They are singing about themselves, you see. This film explores themes the Coens have mined—or pretended to mine—throughout their movies, right from their astonishing debut Blood Simple, a film that principally explored what a hard time Lady Macbeth would have had washing her hands. The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs takes their regular refrains—of fatalism, morbidity, ironic coincidence and the idea of nihilism—and runs them through six stories about storytelling, ballads about balladeers. A timeless, handcrafted approach slyly suggests how firmly these concerns have always been embedded in folklore, and that all storytellers—and story-swallowers—sit in the same saddle.

Hence these unpredictable campfire stories, where an old prospector returns eggs he stole to an owl’s nest (but not all of them, reassuring himself that she can’t count). The prospector, played by the iconically grizzly singer Tom Waits, is panning for gold, and he does this patiently, finding flecks that shinily wink back at him and throwing them back in search of a greater prize. “Eleven," he counts at one point. “That’s almost enough to keep." It is a task rather like that of storytellers who sift for ideas, knowing which ones could be feature length and which ones are just the right size for an anthology.

Another tale features a talented but limbless thespian, a great orator entirely powerless without his manager, a man who sees audiences dwindle. The people are intrigued by a fortune-telling chicken, forsaking these impassioned recitations of Shelley and Lincoln the way internet audiences pick cat videos over, well, anything else. That particular chapter may be the bleakest of the six, but even this may not be as merciless as it seems. After all, the first story ends with a dead character flying to the heavens while jauntily singing that there must be an afterlife—if only because there are songs about it.

I won’t go into who else plays what (those pleasures are yours to uncover) but the cast is superb, my highlights being Harry Melling, Chelcie Ross, Zoe Kazan, James Franco and Liam Neeson, not to mention the blessed Waits, who uses this character to turn his last name into an adjective. The writing is magnificent, the dialogue typically articulate and whimsical, with one long scene in a stagecoach single-handedly trumping Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.

The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs is an enchantment. It is the top film I saw at the recent Mumbai Film Festival, and I urge you to watch it on the biggest screen you find. The film-makers switch through tone as assuredly as racecar drivers flick through gears, and are so aware of their control that they start each story by telling you how it ends. Leave your guns at the door. All hail Joel and Ethan Coen, who never once walk the line.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

He tweets @rajasen

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