The Coen Brothers’ “The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs” (2018)

Notable Festivals: Venice

Like the recording industry before it, the film industry has sustained a seismic shift over the past decade and change— both in small movements made gradually and in giant, abrupt leaps. While experts and armchair analysts alike feared that the advent of home video in the 1970’s and 80’s would result in the collapse of movie theaters, they should have saved their concern for the streaming age ushered in by the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime. Though cinemas are still making out okay (or barely scraping by, depending on who you ask), the economics of the industry — the inscrutable alchemy of ego, inspiration and financial calculus behind every “greenlight” — have profoundly, and perhaps permanently, shifted. Filmmakers of every stripe have had to adapt, the question of their futures rooted in an inherent compromise: do they sacrifice creative control for a large canvas, or do they choose artistic liberty at the expense of a wide theatrical release?

The directing duo of brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have proven themselves to be a major force in American cinema, responsible for several unimpeachable classics, but even they are not immune to the will of the marketplace. The middling performance of their last film, 2016’s HAIL, CAESAR!, reinforced the flagging viability of theatrical for filmmakers uninterested in big budget franchises. As Marvel and other four-quadrant franchises have come to dominate the megaplex, the studios have become increasingly uninterested in making the smaller, adult-oriented films that the Coens specialize in. They could see the writing on the wall, and streamers like Netflix or Amazon Prime — where conventional success metrics like box office receipts no longer applied — offered to transform a future of compromise into one of opportunity. 

Their latest project seemed like an ideal fit, being an unconventional anthology of short Western stories titled THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS. They had developed the stories in private over a span of twenty years (actor Tim Blake Nelson had a draft of the titular story in hand as early as 2002 (1)), so the Coens were understandably hesitant about producing them under such unconventional circumstances. Despite their initial misgivings, they reasoned that they owed their very careers to home video (2), having carried around their proof of concept trailer for 1984’s BLOOD SIMPLE to show to prospective investors in their own homes. A jump to Netflix, then, was only a logical extension of the same approach— only this time it was a finished product; an innovative display of the distinct quality of auteur storytelling that the streaming model is capable of when it’s not trying to emulate studio programming.

The longest film that the Coens have made to date, THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS compiles six original stories that, in the aggregate, paint a fairly comprehensive portrait of the Old West and its mythical place in pop culture, as well as the brothers’ own existing filmography. Each story gets its own title, self-contained cast, and distinct visual style, allowing Joel & Ethan to stretch out into all corners of their wide artistic range. They use the image of a hardcover book — an anthology collection of stories, complete with illustrated color plates — as a framing device and transitory element between each segment. The titular episode is up first, starring Tim Blake Nelson as a singing, fourth-wall breaking raconteur and gunslinger who stumbles into a series of violent mishaps rendered in a manic screwball style similar to RAISING ARIZONA or INTOLERABLE CRUELTY. The next piece, “Near Algodones”, was shot in New Mexico alongside “The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs” and stars James Franco as a stoic cowboy caught in a loop of grim absurdities that evoke the existential irony of films like A SERIOUS MAN and THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE. “Meal Ticket”, filmed amidst the rugged landscape of Colorado, stars Liam Neeson and Harry Melling as a pair of traveling entertainers — the latter a quadruple amputee delivering historical speeches and famous stories, and the former his quiet handler. Like INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS before it, “Meal Ticket” strips back narrative flourish to create an austere meditation on the myriad cruelties of pursuing art in a capitalistic society, where a man can be dispassionately replaced by a chicken if that means more tickets will be sold to the show.

The back half of stories allows the Coens to indulge themselves even further with their unique brand of mythical storytelling. “All Gold Canyon”, an adaptation of a story by Jack London, stars the iconic musician Tom Waits as a crotchety old prospector who stumbles across gold in a lush valley outside Telluride, Colorado (3)— a veritable paradise that’s quickly spoiled by the inherent evil of mankind, manifest in the guise of a bandit who plans to get rich quick off the prospector’s labor. Zoe Kazan, who previously featured in another Oregon Trail film — Kelly Reichardt’s MEEK’S CUTOFF (2010) — headlines the fifth story, “The Gal Who Got Rattled”. Playing a timid would-be settler named Alicia Longabaugh, Kazan’s delicate naïveté in the face of harsh vistas brings to mind similar imagery from TRUE GRIT, while the somber irony of its ending evokes the bleak, yet poignant austerity of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. Inspired by the writings of Steward Edward White and shot on the vast plains of the Nebraska Panhandle, “The Gal Who Got Rattled” puts a particularly Coen-esque twist on the archetypical Oregon Trail story, using the plot device of a small, endlessly-yapping dog whose mere presence seems to invite cruel twists of fate. 

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS closes out with “The Mortal Remains”, easily the most inscrutable of the six stories. Comprised mostly of morbid conversation between Brendan Gleeson, Jonjo O’Neill and other character actors inside a traveling stagecoach before arriving under cover of moonlight at a desolate hotel in the middle of nowhere, “The Mortal Remains” differs from the preceding stories in that it was shot entirely on a soundstage. No effort is made to hide its artificiality, especially where the facades of the hotel and surrounding town are concerned. Like BARTON FINK, the apparent theatricality of the piece suggests that “The Mortal Remains” should be ingested on more of a metaphysical level than its relatively-straightforward cousins. The story is consumed by the specter of death, with its characters displaying a deep-seated anxiety towards the great Hereafter. There’s a strong, perhaps even obvious, case to be made that they are already dead, and are in the process of being ferried over into the afterlife. Notice that the stagecoach drops them off at the hotel without unloading their bags, bringing to mind the ultimate triviality of our earthly possessions. “You can’t take it with you”, the old saying goes. The characters’ anxiety towards death is also reflected in their reluctance to enter the hotel, which is presented as an empty, purgatorial lobby with a grand staircase that leads up towards a blinding white light. Though the gothic, quasi-Victorian vibe of “The Mortal Remains” might seem at odds with the Old West aesthetic of the other stories, it nevertheless fills in a fuller picture of our Western myths by channeling the superstitions and paranoias of the nineteenth-century societies that produced them.

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS also serves as something of a stylistic departure for the Coens, being their first feature film to utilize the digital format. Though their previous features had been shot on photochemical film, there was very little to suggest that they shared the purist sentiment to celluloid evidenced by others like Quentin Tarantino or Christopher Nolan. Indeed, the quantity of low-light and visual effects shots required by the script would suggest a prime opportunity to embrace the now-dominant digital format (4). Working with their INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, the Coens capture THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS on a mix of Arri Alexa and Studio XT cameras in the 2.8K Arriraw format. Presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the image was captured with a collection of Fujinon Alura and Zeiss Master Prime lenses. Along with a classical approach to its camerawork, the predominant use of the 27mm lens in particular works towards a unified aesthetic overall, even as each segment fashions its own distinct look. The titular story takes on a dusty, desaturated look awash in slightly overexposed brightness, so as to highlight its screwball affectations. “Near Algodones” takes on a kind of sepia-toned, tobacco cast while “Meal Ticket” favors a somewhat-sickly blue/green hue. “All Gold Canyon” emphasizes the staggering beauty of its surroundings with bright sunlight and lush greens. “The Gal Who Got Rattled” leans into the fading warmth of golden sunsets, and finally, “The Mortal Remains” reinforces its preoccupation with death via strong, pale blue tones.

Though THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGS’ cinematography readily embraces Western iconography like TRUE GRIT and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN before it, the film’s particular approach to production design and music distinguishes it as an altogether different animal. Working again under their editing pseudonym, Roderick Jaynes, the Coens inject a distinctly postmodern edge through the entire course of proceedings. This is reflected in returning production designer Jess Gonchor’s abstracted landscapes. Even in completely natural environments, the contents of the frame emphasize a degree of exaggeration; for instance, the film opens in Monument Valley, with its infamous towers of rock that have served as a veritable studio backlot to so many westerns before it. “Near Algodones” juxtaposes singular structures — like a tree or a bank facade — against the flat horizon line to create a slightly expressionistic atmosphere. “All Gold Canyon” finds a fertile valley outside Telluride that’s so insanely picturesque it couldn’t possibly exist in the real world; all the better to convey its allusions to the Garden of Eden. 

The Coens’ frequent composer Carter Burwell strikes a middle ground between the earnest heroism of TRUE GRIT’s score and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN’s spare, near-absent approach. The music of THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS adjusts its subdued orchestral character accordingly with each segment, becoming most pronounced in “All Gold Canyon” and “The Gal Who Got Rattled”. That the score was recorded at the iconic Abbey Road Studios in London is indicative of the sweeping disruptions brought on by the rise of streamers— though they make filmed entertainment on the same scale and budget as the studios do, they take advantage of new media agreements to skirt around the full cost of working with the various unions. IATSE’s recent threatening of a nationwide strike is a direct result of this cost-cutting approach, which has inadvertently caused already-exhausted crews to work longer hours at lower pay. In the recording world, Netflix’s refusal to become a signatory to the composers union would mean that it had to conduct that activity outside of the US; the practice has contributed to the hollowing out of the business in traditional locales like New York (5). That the Coens’ move to Netflix could benefit them personally while negatively impacting the craftsmen and women who make their vision possible demonstrates just how complicated and ethically-tangled the streaming age is, even as it simplifies the movie watching experience and makes it more accessible than ever.

This isn’t to say that the decision to record at Abbey Road was particularly cheap; it’s one of the most iconic recording studios in the world, and its use for THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS appropriately reflects the importance of music in the Coens’ artistic profile. Over the course of their filmography, the Coens have explored music — particularly, American musical ideas, conventions, and traditions — as a storytelling tool. Their repeated use of folk songs throughout THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS and prior works, both in diegetic and non-diegetic contexts, is used as a worldbuilding device in the same manner as production design. It’s right there in the title— a celebration of music as a form of oral storytelling and American mythmaking. What’s made the Coens so distinctive against other myth-minded filmmakers is their divergence from the traditional focus on heroes & villains; the various misfits that populate THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS join a long list of Coen oddballs, given generous heaps of sympathy due to the brothers’ supernatural ability to cast outstanding character faces and tunnel deep down into the truth of their humanity. We get the distinct sense that there are larger fates at play, conspiring to manipulate their situations into increasingly-absurd ironies. It would be a rather large stretch to describe the Coens as “religious” filmmakers, but watching THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS and their previous work, one gets the distinct impression of an all-seeing deity with a sick sense of humor, lording over the creations he’s placed into a world that solely exists for his own entertainment. 

Keeping in line with Netflix’s prestigious ambitions, THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS received a splashy premiere at the Venice Film Festival and a limited theatrical release in order to qualify for awards consideration. The strategy was modestly successful, yielding three Oscar nominations in categories like Adapted Screenplay, Costume Design, and Original Song. For Netflix, THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS was an undeniable success, satisfactorily advancing their unrelenting push towards Hollywood dominance. For the Coens, the outcome was more mixed. Despite a swath of positive reviews and major award nominations, THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS didn’t perform well at the box office. Being a subscriber-based service, theatrical receipts are and never have been an important factor in Netflix’s revenue strategy, and the Coens don’t exactly have a reputation for making gobs of money with their films. Maybe it was lack of audience interest, or conversely, a wellspring of interest that simply preferred the ease of streaming at home instead of trekking out to the theater; either way, IndieWire would later analyze, THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS would be the lowest-grossing movie of their career had it followed a traditional release model (6). It may also be the last Coen Brothers film as we’ve come to know the term— amidst rumors that he was simply tired of making movies, Ethan would sit out the production of Joel’s subsequent project, THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH. Though Joel had been credited as the sole director in their early films, it’s commonly understood that Ethan was serving in an equal creative capacity. THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH, then, would be the first true instance of Joel working solo, and all signs seemingly point to this being the case going forward.

If THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS is to be the final film where the brothers are working as a pair, then its legacy as an unwitting capstone to their collaboration is fitting enough. Its continual subversion of genre tropes and wry, sometimes-fatalistic sense of humor is quintessential Coen— a sublime distillation of the multifaceted voice they’ve developed together over the decades, forged from a fundamental understanding of the inherent absurdities of American myth. Their stories are ours, reflected and refracted through the prisms of satire and irony, and yet, always rooted in genuine affection. While positive reviews for THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH portend a continuity of quality post-split, a new era of unpredictability awaits Joel and Ethan in their respective pursuits. We as an audience stand only to benefit, as we’ll gain ever-deeper insights into the individual world views and idiosyncrasies that, when combined, have gifted us with an unforgettable body of work with no equal.

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS is currently available as a ultra high definition stream via Netflix.

Credits:

Written by: Joel & Ethan Coen

Produced by: Joel & Ethan Coen, Robert Graf, Megan Ellison, Sue Naegle

Director of Photography: Bruno Delbonnel

Production Design by: Jess Gonchor

Edited by: Roderick Jaynes

Music by: Carter burwell

References:

  1. Via Wikipedia: Radish, Christina (November 16, 2018). “Tim Blake Nelson on ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ and Damon Lindelof’s ‘Watchmen’ Series”. Collider. Retrieved November 23, 2018.
  2. Via Wikipedia: Rottenberg, Josh (November 14, 2018). “The Coen brothers on their Western anthology film ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,’ Netflix and the future of moviegoing”. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved November 17, 2018.
  3. Via Wikipedia: Desowitz, Bill (November 10, 2018). “‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’: Pushing the Limits of Western Authenticity in Coen Brothers’ First Netflix Movie”. IndieWire. Retrieved November 21, 2018.
  4. Via Wikipedia: Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen On Singing Cowboys And Working With Oxen” (Podcast). Event occurs at 20:50.
  5. Via Wikipedia: Giardina, Carolyn (November 16, 2017). “Composer Carter Burwell Is the Latest Guest on The Hollywood Reporter’s ‘Behind the Screen’ Podcast Series”. The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved November 24, 2018.
  6. Via Wikipedia: Tom Brueggemann (November 11, 2018). “Netflix’s Strange ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ Results; Jason Reitman’s ‘The Front Runner’ Flops”. IndieWire. Retrieved November 30, 2018.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s