WAY OUT WESTERNS
The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs is six Coen films for the price of one
Perhaps the biggest surprise about the new Coen brothers movie is that it turned out to be a movie. With their shock move to Netflix, it was taken as gospel that the unpredictable siblings’ next enterprise, a Western anthology diced into six discrete tales, was to be a television show. The IMDB still refers to it as Season 1.
In fact, that was never the case. “Everybody got the wrong end of the stick,” laughs Tim Blake Nelson, who fills the boots of cowboy troubadour Buster Scruggs, misanthropic hero of the title story. Not that this was some cunning Fargo-esque ruse, he hastens to add. “Joel and Ethan simply chose not to dispel any of the misconstruing that was going on. This was always a movie.”
10 years ago, Joel had popped over to the actor’s New York apartment. “We’re going to make an anthology film,” he told his friend, and handed Nelson the script for the title episode, a miniature Western inspired by his performance as crooning dimbulb Delmar in O Brother, Where Art Thou?. As soon as they got around to writing four or five others, announced Joel, they were good to go.
Big with the European art-crowd and British horror directors in the ’60s, anthology flicks are short-story collections conjoined by theme or setting or genre. Long ago, the brothers had contemplated an anthology entitled The Contemplations, with each
chapter unearthed in a dusty library. O Brother, The Man Who Wasn’t There and A Serious Man began life as Contemplations.
Originally going by the brevitydefying designation ‘The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs And Other Tales Of The American Frontier With Colour Plates’, the film’s parts are united by a contemplation of mortality. “Mortality in a world of unpredictability, violence and vengeance,” says Nelson. “But as with all of Joel and Ethan’s work, the subject is also the language of film itself.”
Shot in New Mexico and the Nebraska Panhandle, using a familiar rogues’ gallery of peculiar faces, each of the 15-minute films-within-thefilm explores a different sub-genre of the Western. “You could also call it a Cubist or postmodern look at the genre from six different angles,” says Nelson.
Here’s a quick breakdown of what to expect from each of the tales.
THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS
Starring: Tim Blake Nelson, Harry Melling, David Krumholtz
According to Nelson, the title story explores a transition from the Singing Cowboy Western of the ’30s (as hailed in Hail, Caesar!) into “a precursor Sergio Leone Western”. Possibly involving an appointment with the gallows for Nelson’s balladeer. “I spent five months training for 15 minutes of screen time,” he says. “I had to learn to play the guitar from scratch and be able to play, sing and ride at the same time. I learned all these pistol tricks. And then when I got down to Santa Fe, they added a dance number.”
Starring: James Franco, Ralph Ineson, Stephen Root
In what Nelson classifies as the “Hapless Wanderer” style of Western, the “Franco one” follows a high-planes drifter whose attempts at bank robbery and cattlerustling are undone by general levels of incompetency and fecklessness.
Starring: Paul Rae, Jiji Hise
Harkening back to those Coen tales of Hollywood foibles in Barton Fink and
Hail, Caesar!, as well as the saloon-theatre traditions of the West, the third follows a struggling actor’s encounter with a dubious impresario.
ALL GOLD CANYON
Starring: Tom Waits, Sam Dillon
“This is the ‘Prospecting For Gold’ sub-genre,” says Nelson. “I don’t know if you’d call that Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. It’s not quite that. I’ll just say the prospector movie.” As with many chasing remuneration from the cold Coen universe, said prospector strikes it rich but comes undone in his attempts to keep it a secret.
THE GAL WHO GOT RATTLED
Starring: Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck,
The fifth is an example of what Nelson calls the ‘Covered Wagon’ sub-genre, which “goes back to John Wayne’s first movie, The Big Trail”. The story follows a “gal” on the Oregon Trail caught between two men, one a marriage prospect, the other a stranger who comes to her assistance.
THE MORTAL REMAINS
Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Saul Rubinek, Tyne Daly
“This is your stagecoach chamber play that was explored by Quentin Tarantino recently,” explains Nelson, referring to The Hateful Eight. This circles five passengers heading for a mystery destination. Across all six tales, concludes Nelson, “are a half-dozen characters who think they have got it all figured out but they really don’t.” In other words: classic Coen brothers.
Clockwise from main: ‘The Scruggs’: Ballad Tim Of Blake Buster Nelson as the titular singing cowboy; ‘All Gold Canyon’: Tom Waits stars as a gold prospector; ‘The Mortal Remains’: a stagecoach chamber play with Jonjo O’neill and Brendan Gleeson.