No period of American history is as vilified in popular culture as the days of the Western Frontier, but not for reasons usually stated. The mythology of the Old West established the Frontier as a safety valve and a guarantee of personal liberty. If the local authorities and society ever became too stifling, a man had the option of moving further off into that great open expanse of possibilities. Of course, that is a dangerous notion for those who take it upon themselves to tell others what to do. That is why nearly every contemporary Western produced by studios or major minis is a revisionist Western (an usually quite lectury about it). The Coen Brothers got away with a traditional Western when they remade (quite rousingly) True Grit, but they play it safer this time around. Still, there are a few traditional elements in their mostly cynical The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (trailer here), which launches today on Netflix.
Scruggs, a.k.a. “The San Saba Songbird,” is not our narrator. He is our title story, sort of like “The Outcasts of Poker Flats.” He also sets the tone. He croons and dresses all in white, but he is a decidedly black-hearted villain, the irony of which he delights in pointing out. Scruggs has been a hit with the sort of critics who hate Westerns, but real viewers will probably find his shtick grows tiresome. The same is even truer of the second story, featuring James Franco as a bank robber plagued by luck so bad, it is sort of like Final Destination as written by O. Henry. It is easily the weakest installment of the anthology film, as you probably already guessed, because of Franco.
Death is a constant the Coens’ stories, but so is exploitation, which is particularly pronounced in the third tale. Liam Neeson appears as a Mephistophelean Impresario who cold-bloodedly tours backwater towns with circus geek-like orator of 19th Century literary favorites. The grotesque elements are distinctive, but the real point of the story is to rub our noses in how nasty and brutish the Old West was.
That is a rough start, but the film then turns a corner offering up three ripping good yarns. We next meet Tom Waites playing an old prospector who might be getting a little dotty, but he is persistent. He will also be forced to confront issues of mortality and exploitation before the tale is done.
By far, the best constituent narrative is “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” which really could pass for a lost Bret Harte story. Alice Longabaugh is a young woman of nervous disposition, due to the unhealthy influence of her jerkweed brother Gilbert. When he dies not long after setting off on a wagon train to Oregon, she is left at the mercy of their hired wagon driver. However, the caravan’s guides take a liking to her, especially smitten Billy Knapp.
Frankly, we’re impressed the Brothers Coen had the guts to tell this tale, because it incorporates some decidedly old school traditional elements. It is also the most emotionally engaging and honestly tragic. Zoe Kazan is absolutely terrific, in a heartbreaking way, as mousy but resolute Alice Longabaugh. As Knapp, Bill Heck hits the perfect “aw shucks” note, while developing some winningly earnest chemistry with her. Yet, as Knapp’s crusty partner Mr. Arthur, Grainger Hines really makes the story work, with the sort of performance that sneaks up on you and then lowers the boom.
The concluding segment is also a bit jokey, but the macabrely gothic riff on John Ford’s Stagecoach works so much better than the first three tall tales, precisely because of its weird ambiguity. Plus, Brendan Gleeson plays a crooning Irish bounty-hunter, so what’s not to like.