Thursday, December 20, 2018

The Coen Brothers' best? Netflix's THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS soars, even as it knocks you for a long, dark, funny loop

The brothers Ethan and Joel Coen (shown below, with Ethan on the left) may be better known for their directing efforts, but in actuality the pair possesses more credits in writing than it does in directing. And while TrustMovies has long thought the brothers to be among our finest current film writers, it took their latest movie, THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS, available now via Netflix streaming, to make me realize just how goddamned good they really are.

The level of dialog here -- the intelligence, wit and in particular the "period" authenticity -- from all the characters in each of the six tales told seems so incredibly perfect (often utterly juicy) that one can only listen in rapt attention and marvel throughout.

The tales themselves are terrific -- one as different from the next as you could want -- yet possessing the consistent Coen theme of a dark universe, full of irony and humor, in which almost no one comes to a good end. (And really now, no one ever does, right? There are good and vastly varied middles maybe, but the end is always the same.) Yet most (well, some) of the folk we meet here are fine people deserving of as much good as they can muster.

The movie begins with its most light-hearted and even silly story, starring that wonderful actor Tim Blake Nelson (above) as a singing gunfighter who is just a tad too besotted with his own aura and reputation. The episode is as hilarious and goofy as anything the Coens have given us.

We then move to the tale of a doofus would-be bank-robber (played by a wonderful James Franco, above) in, again, a tale as dark and funny as you'll find. Mr. Franco gets the movie's most hilarious line, "This your first time?", and trust me, context is all here.

The third episode is one of the darkest I've yet seen, in which actual original dialog goes all but missing and we are treated to perhaps the oddest recitations of great writing -- from Shakespeare to Shelley and back -- you'll have ever seen/heard. Liam Neeson, Harry Melling (above) and a gifted chicken weave a story as bleak as any recorded, and the Coens tell it in a manner that proves almost as beautiful as it is deadly.

Tom Waits stars as a lone gold panner/prospector in the fourth segment, which takes place in the movie's most lushly beautiful scenery and comes closest to a happy conclusion as we're likely to get -- even if the getting there is pretty dry and dark.

The penultimate tale is the longest, richest and most moving, as Zoe Kazan and Jefferson Mays play brother and sister who head west as part of a wagon train led by a couple of very interesting men (Bill Heck and Grainger Hines). Luck, more often of the bad sort, plagues the people here. Each tale leads off and ends with an illustration, as from an old western-themed tome. The one used in this particular segment, along with its accompanying snippet of words, seems somewhat ordinary when we first hear it at the episode's beginning. As heard and seen again at the conclusion, it packs an extraordinary punch.

The final segment involves a stagecoach ride with a quintet of thrown-together passengers -- Jonjo O'Neill, (above, left), Brendan Gleason (above, right), Tyne Daly, Saul Rubinek and Chelcie Ross -- who communicate smugly, angrily and humorously as they head for a rather unusual destination. The dialog here grows as philosophical as it is funny and smart.

So right and so original in so many ways, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs may seem to you as it does to me, one of, perhaps the Coens' best work to date. It's mordant as hell and a lot funnier, too. In an earlier post this week, I referred to Billy Wilder and The Apartment as an example of compassionate cynicism. The Coens bring that odd juxtaposition to equally amazing life with this splendid film.

From Netflix, after one of that behemoth's typically highly limited theatrical runs and now streaming at your pleasure, the movie is certainly one of 2018's very best.

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