Sunday, December 2, 2018


Through the title character, aka the San Saba Songbird, the West Texas Twit (or Tit) and, most troubling to himself, "The Misanthrope," Joel and Ethan Coen address some of their critics.

'Misanthrope?'  I don't hate my fellow man, even when he's tiresome and sulky and tries to cheat at poker. I figure that's just a human material, and him that finds it cause for anger and dismay is just a fool for expecting better.

Perhaps feeling less capable of telling a feature-length story lately, the Coens reportedly contemplated embarking on series television. It was announced that they were creating a western anthology series for Netflix, but instead, apparently quitting while they were ahead, they delivered a feature-length collection of six stories: five of their own and an adaptation of Jack London's "All Gold Canyon." There's a variety of tone to the anthology that belies any stereotype of the Coens' character or philosophy and makes it truly reminiscent of the Twilight Zone of western anthology TV, Zane Grey Theater. It opens with a trolling provocation featuring Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), a seemingly invincible and suprisingly lethal singing cowboy who ultimately yields, in the most cartoonish fashion, to a harmonica-playing stranger presumably representing a later era of westerns. It's a combination of what some may enjoy most and what others despise in the Coens' work, but as the film moves from episode to episode it grows less predictable, veering from the fateful absurdity of "Near Algodones," in which James Franco's hapless bank robber escapes one hanging only to be doomed to another, to the utter nihilism of "Meal Ticket," in which Liam Neeson exploits a limbless savant who performs recitations and murders him when he fails to draw crowds anymore, before following London in a more hopeful direction.

The longest episode -- or so it seemed, though not in a bad way -- is both the most romantic and the most tragic. "The Gal Who Got Rattled" is a wagon-train story of the deliberate courtship of a suddenly penniless pioneer woman (Zoe Kazan -- a veteran of Meek's Cutoff, by the way) and a wagonmaster's lieutenant (Bill Heck), as much motivated by monetary concerns as by feelings of ardor. There are elements in the story -- a dog with a maddening bark, a bankroll left in a corpse's clothes -- that lead you to suspect an absurdly happy ending until the story takes a twist out of nowhere when the girl and the wagonmaster (Grainger Hines) are caught alone by an Indian attack. The Coens have set up an archetypal frontier scenario of the sort that might get them scolded for their portrayal of Native Americans, down to the wagonmaster giving the girl a gun so she can kill herself if the Indians get him, in order to spare herself the fate worse than death, which here gets described in some detail. In a brilliantly swervy climax, it looks like he's driven the war band back only to get tricked by a seemingly riderless horse. The Coens keep our eyes on this scene, as the Indian moves in to take a scalp, only to get killed by the possum-playing wagonmaster. Hooray! -- except that the girl was just as fooled as the Indian was, and the finish could be considered an indictment of the mortal terror of Indians the old tales induced. This is a great piece of filmmaking on its own, but it could only happen in an anthology format, since it's too short to be a feature and a standalone story won't go on series TV nowadays.

The film ends on an eerie note with a story that's part Stagecoach, part Samuel Beckett, with a typical Coen cast of eccentrics and grotesques sharing a ride with two men who may be bounty hunters or may be far more sinister than that. On paper it's little more than an opportunity for a lot of newcomers to the Coens' world to tuck into their meaty flights of rhetoric, especially Chelcie Ross as an interminible trapper. One thing you can depend on, no matter what the content or tone of the tale, is that these westerners won't sound just like the people next door today; it's of a piece with their True Grit in many ways, and maybe meant to show that they weren't just mimicking Charles Portis's prose. While they portray The Ballad of Buster Scruggs onscreen as an old hardcover book with color illustrations, it reminded me more of the western pulp magazines I've come to enjoy reading in its simultaneous variety and consistency. The finished product may or may not count as a salvage job, but it still plays to the Coens' strengths while minimizing their weaknesses in a way that makes it a vast improvement over the tedious Hail Ceasar! The brothers may well have found the right medium in Netflix for this point in their career. Had it been packaged as a series, that would only have made it more clear, as it was clear a century ago, that great filmmaking isn't restricted to feature-length storytelling.

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