Friday, December 14, 2018
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Written, produced, edited, and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a collection of stories set in the American West as it play into the many adventures of misadventures of people in the West. The film is an anthology film of sorts that play into six different stories relating to the West. Starring Tim Blake Nelson, Tyne Daly, James Franco, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Harry Melling, Liam Neeson, and Brendan Gleeson. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a majestic yet whimsical film from the Coen Brothers.
Set in the American West, the film follow six different stories in the American West as it all relates to the themes of death as well as people’s encounter with it. All of which is told in a book about these tales of the West and these characters as they encounter with some idea of death. In The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a cowboy arrives into town singing songs as he also disposes challengers through gunfights while also commenting about the ideas of humanity where he meets a new challenger. Near Algodones is about a bank robber is attacked by the bank’s clerk where pots and pans where he’s later knocked out and captured by a mysterious man in black only for the day to get weirder following an attack by the Comanche, an encounter with a drover, and all sorts of bad shit in one strange day. Meal Ticket revolves around an impresario travels through the cold West with his performer in a young legless/armless artist who recites poetry, stories, and other texts where they endure a declining audience and lack of money prompting the impresario to find a new act.
All Gold Canyon, that is based on a story by Jack London, is about a prospector arrives on a mountain valley to find gold as he dwells into the land to find gold where he makes a discovery but also another one that is far more deadly. In The Gal Who Got Rattled that is inspired by story by Stewart Edward White, a young woman is on the Oregon Trail with her dim-witted older brother who dies suddenly of cholera where she befriends a train leader who is sympathetic to her plight as he thinks about having a future with her once the trail ends. The Mortal Remains is about five different people traveling on a stagecoach as tension arises during the journey as they all tell their own views while dealing with the fact that there’s a dead body on top of the stagecoach as some wonder why. These six different stories play into themes that play into the danger and uncertainty of the West as well as the realities of a world that is ever-changing.
The direction of the Coen Brothers definitely owe a lot to Westerns of the past but also provide their own visual language in the film as it relates to the presentation of the different stories in the film. Each story opens with a picture in the book and closes with the last page of that story as it’s told through a book as it would then cut to a landscape as many of the film’s locations are shot in the Nebraskan Panhandle, New Mexico, and Telluride in Colorado. The Coen Brothers’ direction would have these gorgeous wide shots of certain locations where they also create these striking compositions that add to the beauty whether it’s a shot of a man about to be hanged or a certain location in the valley. While there are comical elements in these stories with the titular story being the most comical of them all as it’s partially a musical. The rest range into elements of dark comedy as it relates to the theme of death as it play into the sense of melancholia and changing times of the West that is evident in stories such as Meal Ticket and The Gal Who Got Rattled as the former is largely dramatic and minimalist in its story while the latter is more about this uncertainty on the Oregon Trail.
Serving as editors under the Roderick Jaynes pseudonym, the Coen Brothers’ approach to the editing help add to not just the drama but also humor with its usage of jump-cuts and dissolves along with rhythmic cuts in certain aspects of the film. Most particularly in All Gold Canyon where the prospector (Tom Waits) is digging holes trying to find gold along with the montage of the artist in Harrison (Harry Melling) reciting famous texts to the growing declining audience in Meal Ticket. The usage of close-ups and medium shots are evident in The Mortal Remains as it is shot largely inside the stagecoach to play into the dramatic tension as well as the sense of intrigue of where the five passengers are going. It is the Coen Brothers playing into the dangers of the American West as they definitely show violent moments that are graphic as it add to the specter of death. Overall, the Coen Brothers craft an evocative yet offbeat film about six strange tales in the American West.
Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel does brilliant work with the film’s cinematography with its usage of natural lighting for some of the exteriors in the daytime along with the usage of tints and filters for some interior scenes along with shots set at night or in the evening as it’s a highlight of the film. Production designer Jess Gonchor, with set decorator Nancy Haigh plus art directors Steve Christensen and Chris Farmer, does amazing work with the look of the buildings that some of the characters go to including the saloons as well as the stagecoach and wagons for some parts of the film. Costume designer Mary Zophres does fantastic work with the costumes as it play into the period of the times from the shiny look of the titular character to the rougher and ragged look of other cowboys as it’s a highlight of the film.
Makeup effects supervisor Robin Myriah Hatcher does terrific work with the look of the characters with the artist being the most notable as well as a few passengers on the stagecoach. Visual effects supervisors Michael Huber and Alex Lemke do excellent work with the visual effects where it does do bits of set-dressing in some parts while doing its best work on the look of the artist. Sound editors Craig Berkey and Skip Lievsay do superb work with the sound as it help play into the atmosphere of the locations as well as how gunfire and such sounds during a few gun battles in the film. The film’s music by Carter Burwell is incredible for its rich and bombastic musical score that feature some flourishing string arrangements along with elements of folk and country music to play into the air of the times.
The casting by Ellen Chenoweth is wonderful as it feature some notable small roles and appearances from E.E. Bell as a piano saloon player, Tom Proctor as a Cantina bad man, and David Krumholtz as a saloon Frenchman in the titular segment while Jesse Luken as the drover and Ralph Ineson as the Man in Black are terrific in their brief appearances in Near Algodones. In the titular opening segment, the performances of Clancy Brown as the gambler Curly Joe, Willie Watson as a young gunslinger, and Tim Blake Nelson as the titular character are great with Nelson being a jovial and engaging individual who sings about his exploits while being a great gunslinger. In Near Algodones, Stephen Root is fantastic as the bank teller who is more than prepared for a bank robbery while James Franco is superb as the robber who finds himself in dangerous situations. Liam Neeson and Harry Melling are incredible in their respective roles as the impresario and the artist named Harrison in the Meal Ticket segment with Neeson being largely silent as a man trying to make money while Melling displays a charisma through the things he says.
Tom Waits is brilliant as the prospector trying to find gold in All Gold Canyon while Sam Dillon is wonderful in his small role as a young man trying to rob the prospector. In The Girl Who Got Rattled, the performances of Zoe Kazan as Alice Longabaugh, Bill Heck as Billy Knapp, and Grainger Haines as Mr. Arthur are amazing with Kazan being the major standout as a young woman coping with her situation while there’s notable small roles from Jefferson Mays as Alice’s brother Gilbert and Ethan Dubin as Matt who is trying to cheat Alice. In The Mortal Remains, the performances of Tyne Daly as the devout Christian woman, Saul Rubinek as the Frenchman, Chelcie Ross as trapper, Jonjo O’Neill as the Englishman, and Brendan Gleeson as the Irishman all sitting at the stagecoach are excellent to play into the tension and differences of these individuals as they deal with the journey ahead and their destination as well as the reality of their environment.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a sensational film from Joel and Ethan Coen. Featuring a great ensemble cast, compelling stories on death and the unexpected elements of life, gorgeous cinematography, and an incredible music score and soundtrack. It’s a film that is an unusual yet engaging anthology film of sorts set in the American West that play into all sorts of situations and stories that all relate to uncertainty in those times. In the end, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a phenomenal film from Joel and Ethan Coen.
Coen Brothers Films: Blood Simple - Raising Arizona - Miller's Crossing - Barton Fink - The Hudsucker Proxy - Fargo - The Big Lebowski - O Brother, Where Art Thou? - The Man Who Wasn't There - Intolerable Cruelty - The Ladykillers - Paris Je T'aime-Tulieres -To Each His Own Cinema-World Cinema - No Country for Old Men - Burn After Reading - A Serious Man - True Grit - Inside Llewyn Davis - Hail, Caesar!
The Auteurs #9: The Coen Brothers: Pt. 1 - Pt. 2
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