Recently, I had the pleasure of viewing and reviewing one of the latest Tim Blake Nelson performances in the locally shot and set The True Don Quixote. I remarked on how Nelson makes just about any role work, even if it means adding a small quirk or two. Quirkiness is very much a game played by The Cohen Brothers, whose films – ranging from No Country For Old Men to Burn After Reading – tend to feature dry and dark humor, punctuated by awkward and dramatic attitudes. Nelson and the Cohens have teamed up for the Netflix exclusive (shown at this year’s New Orleans Film Fest along with Quixote) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, an anthology picture made up of six short stories, with Nelson playing the titular Buster. Here, we have a role that could only really be cast with Nelson in mind, for anyone else would give off a different and lacking vibe. And lacking is not exactly how I would describe Scruggs.
This film is the first time the Cohen’s have shot digitally, and it shows. The colors of the west and of the frontier are HD vibrant, crisp to an almost unreal level; not unlike matte painting backgrounds, but with the knowledge that it was all done on location. This visual trick plays into the movie’s yarn-spinning nature very well, giving us eye candy more reel than real. But it is real and isn’t at once. Scruggs is a gorgeous watch, even in streaming conditions, but its deceptive being gives cue and clue to the fortunes and misfortunes of each and every character we encounter.
Spread among six stories, Scruggs is never a chore or a bore, but it does drag once or twice. I admit this may be with purpose – the whole film is made up of frames with urgent and long-lasting purpose – but it still exhibits and exposes a stretching notion. In the second tale with James Franco, we see a bank robbery attempt played out in the middle of nowhere. One thing leads to another, and Franco is at the mercy of the wrong end of a hanging rope. Superficially, this is it. Nothing more. However, thinking on the details, one gets the sensation of meaning in every moment, no matter how nuanced or minute. It’s all so ethereal and atmospheric, all so other-worldly and even spiritual or philosophical. In the short amount of time Franco spends on screen, for the few actions that his character is involved with, there is much said and suggested, all open for interpretation. I really like that.
Personally, my favorite segments are the second and third, which also happen to be the more confounding ones. The Cohens tell movies in the way Edgar Allen Poe wrote of the macabre, and this version of the West is no different in humor and thoughtful blackness. Characters roam a setting of foreboding destiny, sometimes their heads hanging low, sometimes pale-faced and sickly, always with a choice to make on the paths they take. It’s a land of ghosts, but only a few understand this, and when they do, it’s usually at their end. Where Scruggs excels is in showing and indirectly holding back the telling. It’s a film of various movements, progressive-like and absolutely subject to multiple viewings. Binge in one sitting? You’ll want to go for a few more.
The first story, featuring Tim Blake Nelson as Buster Scruggs – a singing gunman – is absolutely absurd and overly violent. It’s the most directly understood tale told in the movie, but it’s not without charm or stylistic oddity. Scruggs is a cinematic achievement of the marriage between the strange and the mainstream, of the reconciliation between the legendary and the literal, and of the push/pull between the known and the unknown. Despite some dragging and some thinness, the Cohen brothers make this Ballad a highlight of the Netflix canon.
Had Nelson not been cast as Buster, had someone else not played/portrayed the role as an unassuming and polite mass killer with tooth shined charm and all, we wouldn’t have had the introduction to the unexpected and the surreal, the surprising and the natural, that we got. Scruggs is polished from its visuals to its script, with much room to breath and time to think; leaving our binge-watching selves images and sequences that linger in our minds. When Nelson speaks to us as Buster, as an on-screen fourth wall breaking narrator, we feel and recognize our place in the audience more so than normal. It’s almost an out of body, out of mind, and into the screen kinda thing – if that makes any sense. No, Scruggs doesn’t induce psychedelic symptoms, but it does employ a battle of wills that’s fun to feel. A battle between streamer and what’s streaming. A battle with no loser, but resulting in much contemplation.
Earthen yet star seeking. Films: they’re just like us. Lacking? No, but if so, what would you want to add?
RATING: 4 / 5
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs us currently streaming on Netflix. Save your paycheck on Black Friday (shop Small Business Saturday instead), and spend some time with family and friends over a movie.
Bill Arceneaux has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations, and Occupy. He is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association and is Rotten Tomatoes approved. Be sure to check out his fantastic film reviews and other articles here.