Here’s how much movies have changed.
Since 1994’s “The Hudsucker Proxy,” I have seen every Coen brothers movie on the big screen the week it opened in my town. (I was a bit too young to catch “Miller’s Crossing,” “Barton Fink” and “Raising Arizona,” and a bit too not-born-yet to see “Blood Simple” on the big screen.)
But on Friday morning, I watched Joel and Ethan Coen’s new film, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” on my iPad, on my couch, sitting in pajamas as I ate cereal. It was admittedly not the ideal setting to watch the new movie from two of our greatest living filmmakers. But this is the content-streaming world we live in now — where movies that once would have been major events are quietly dropped on Netflix in the middle of the night.
And yet “Buster Scruggs” (partially shot in Nebraska) lends itself to home viewing probably better than any other Coens movie, as it was originally — and to some degree remains — a TV show.
“Scruggs” is an anthology film of six stories set in the Old West. The movie uses the old-school framing device of a book (full title: “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Other Tales of the American Frontier.”) Each of the six chapters is introduced with turning pages, a bit of text and its own color illustrations.
“Scruggs” was originally intended as a miniseries, but somewhere along the way Netflix and the Coens scrapped the longer format for a feature-length film. And it mostly works.
As with any anthology movie (a format that’s mostly stuck to the horror genre), “Scruggs” is a mixed bag. Each episode is distinct and unrelated to the others. The thing that connects them, the thread that runs through every chapter, is nihilism. The point of each story is its pointlessness, of characters looking for and failing to find an answer to the meaning or purpose of their lives.
This has a way of making a few of the stories feel like sick jokes with abruptly violent punchlines. Tonally, the stories play like a highlight reel of the Coens’ filmography, showing the brothers at both their goofiest and most misanthropic — sometimes in the same story.
The most delightful in the bunch is the title story, a blood-soaked musical featuring Tim Blake Nelson as singing gunslinger Buster Scruggs. Buster is an odd, friendly fellow who just can’t help but anger folks and, subsequently, shoot them. Most of his card games end in death (and a song). His killings are amusing. One particular murder is one of the funniest things you’ll ever see in a Western.
Next up is “Near Algodones,” which stars James Franco as a hapless bank robber who runs afoul of various lawmen. It’s slight, but at the very least it features Stephen Root wearing a suit of pots and pans while charging into a gunfight. Every time a bullet hits a pan, Root screams, “Pan shot!” And that’s really only something you’d see in a Coen brothers movie.
“Meal Ticket” is one of the cruelest curios of the Coens’ careers. It stars Liam Neeson as a man who travels from town to town putting on a show with an armless, legless orator who recites famous speeches. When Neeson discovers an entertainer who draws bigger crowds (a chicken that does tricks), the legless, armless orator begins to worry about his future.
“All Gold Canyon” is a one-man show featuring Tom Waits as a tireless prospector hunting for a pocket of gold in a valley.
The final tale, “The Mortal Remains,” is also the weakest — a talky-to-the-point-of-tedium carriage ride in which various travelers (including Tyne Daly and Brendan Gleeson) discuss human nature as they await their final judgment. If nothing else, the story serves as a nifty coda that wraps the chapters together somewhat.
In that story, a bounty hunter nicely encapsulates not only the film’s central theme, but one of the running aims of the Coen brothers’ careers, as he talks about the people he’s killed: “It’s always interesting watching them negotiate the passage ... from here to there, to the other side, watching them try to make sense of it as they pass to that other place. I do like looking into their eyes as they try to make sense of it.”
The best story in the film is the penultimate one, the longest one, the one shot in western Nebraska last year: “The Gal Who Got Rattled.”
Set on an Oregon Trail wagon train, “Gal” follows the young, timid Alice (Zoe Kazan) as she sets out for a new life with her brother and his dog, named President Pierce. When her brother dies of cholera, she’s given aid (and affection) by the strapping train leader Billy Knapp (Bill Heck).
Coming in at the length of a TV episode, “Gal Who Got Rattled” is the most fleshed-out of the bunch, and it benefits from the sweetness of Kazan and Heck’s awkward courting. But, in keeping with the other stories, it’s as full of cruel ironies and pointless death as anything else in the movie.
“Buster Scruggs” is an admirable feat — telling six stories wherein the point is that there’s no point. To any of this. To the stories or the movie or the universe. Though it might also make a viewer wonder what’s the point of watching this movie.
The case for it, I suppose, is that all stories are a distraction from the meaninglessness, even the stories that underline it. Every story serves a purpose, so long as it’s beautifully told.
And even if this is a lesser Coen brothers movie, it is still a Coen brothers movie. Which means it’s beautifully told. That it’s sprinkled with brilliantly ornate dialogue. That it has a tremendous score (by Carter Burwell). And stunning cinematography (by Bruno Delbonnel), which captures the beauty and isolation of those wide-open vistas in ways that recall the best Westerns. (It’s a fine-looking film, whether you see it on an iPad or the big screen.)
The rolling hills of western Nebraska have never looked more gorgeous (or full of menace) in a movie.
The wagon pioneers make their long trek, lost in an ocean of prairie grass, an awful wind howling against them. Perhaps there’s a point to their travels, perhaps not.
But whatever the case regarding the destination, the Coens found one hell of a place to shoot the journey.
The Coen brothers, ranked
For Coen brothers fans, picking a favorite film is tough, not unlike picking one’s favorite child or favorite woodchipper. Too many stellar options. Even the Coens’ missteps are interesting. But however difficult it might be, here we go.
Note: This is an update of an earlier article.
18. “The Ladykillers” (2004)
Despite a wild Tom Hanks performance, this is as close as the Coens ever came to making a bad movie.
17. “Intolerable Cruelty” (2003)
The lesser of their zany Preston Sturges riffs.
16. “The Hudsucker Proxy” (1994)
Beautiful filmmaking in the service of something rather hollow.
15. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” (2018)
14. “Hail, Caesar!” (2016)
An ode to the worship of moviemaking as the one true religion.
13. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000)
The greater of their zany Preston Sturges riffs.
12. “True Grit” (2010)
Their first remake and first Western.
11. “Barton Fink” (1991)
A satire of old Hollywood that becomes a Kafkaesque nightmare. John Goodman as cuddly Satan.
10. “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001)
Their black-and-white noir, with a perfectly deadpan Billy Bob Thornton.
9. “A Serious Man” (2009)
The brothers’ most personal film. And perhaps their most baffling.
8. “Burn After Reading” (2008)
A deeply misanthropic film. Pure loathing for every character and just for people in general. Wonderful.
7. “Raising Arizona” (1987)
The silliest thing they’ve ever done, and one of the best uses of Nic Cage discovered thus far.
6. “Blood Simple” (1984)
The greatest debut in film history, or just one of the greatest debuts in film history?
5. “Miller’s Crossing” (1990)
A sprawling gangster epic that de-romanticizes and deconstructs the genre while also being a perfect example of it. Composer Carter Burwell, a longtime Coen collaborator, gives us his greatest score.
4. “The Big Lebowski” (1998)
Their funniest and most quotable film, featuring in The Dude and Walter Sobchak two of the all-time great movie characters.
3. “Fargo” (1996)
With Marge Gunderson as its heart, “Fargo” is the Coens’ sweetest movie, despite also being the one in which Steve Buscemi’s dismembered body parts are fed into a woodchipper.
2. “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013)
A sad, gorgeous tribute to trying but failing — i.e., being human.
1. “No Country for Old Men” (2007)
Everything they’ve learned as filmmakers and everything they’ve tried to say as storytellers is contained in these 122 minutes.
“In the dream, I knew that he was goin’ on ahead, and he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there, he would be there. And then I woke up.”