The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Produced by Annapurna Pictures
Written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen
Distributed by Netflix
Produced by Participant Media
Written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón
Distributed by Netflix
Near the end of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Coen brothers’ latest cinematic whimsy being shown on Netflix, Brendan Gleeson sings a ditty (a British ballad called “The Unfortunate Lad,” on which “The Streets of Laredo” was based) that includes a verse about a man dying of syphilis. This fellow laments his state and ruefully points out that he might have avoided infection if only the lady in question had told him about hers. He could have taken white mercury pills. He then specifies how he wants to be carried to his grave.
Get six pretty maidens to bear up my pall
and give to each of them bunches of roses
that they may not smell me as they go along.
As devotees of the cankered muse, the Coens naturally put beauty and stench side by side. Don’t be fooled, they seem to say. Whatever their appearance, humans are disgusting vermin or, as one character in the film puts it, ferrets. How true. Just read today’s paper to find evidence of this. You can’t miss the ferret stink wafting from Adam Schiff and Michael Cohen.
Scruggs comprises six vignettes set in the 19th-century west. Each episode is self-contained but nevertheless linked by the Coens’ wickedly sly sensibility. All of these narratives traffic in mayhem, murder, and depravity. This is Coen country, after all.
As the film begins, the camera moves in on a book containing pictures that introduce its chapters—richly colored and evocative of the heroic sense of themselves men nurture in their hearts. But when we meet the titular hero of the first story, Buster Scruggs, we find he’s 5’5″ Tim Blake Nelson wearing a white outfit with cowboy smile pockets similar to the ones favored by screen buckaroos such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers 80 years ago. Played with wonderful drollery by Nelson, Scruggs bears a name that defies the canons of western heroism. There’s something peculiarly modern about the name Buster. It’s an especially 20th-century moniker, betokening a world in which people break things first and later look for reasons why. Have you ever encountered on-screen or in life a cowboy named Buster? The only Buster I know of in movie land is Buster Kea ton, and the Coens’ Scruggs is not at all like that stoic of the stone face. Nelson’s Buster smiles unfailingly and, unlike Kea ton, is rarely at a loss when confronted by those who wish him harm. Then there’s Nelson’s disarming drawl. Not your conventional hero. The story comically reprises the standard western conceit in which gun-wearing men meet in the street to fire their Colts at one another over slights real or imagined, most often imagined. In perilous situations, Buster maintains an amiable manner, even when he pulls his six-shooter from its holster to defend himself from homicidal varmints. He shoots them in their brows, which are notably furrowed with disbelief because they’ve fatally mistaken Scruggs for the benign simpleton he seems.
The ever-cheerful Scruggs only frowns once. That’s when he comes upon a wanted poster that labels him a misanthrope. He forcefully demurs, explaining, “I don’t hate m’fellow man even when he’s tiresome’n surly’n tries to cheat at poker. Why I figure that’s just the human material . . . and himmet finds in it cause for anger’n dismay is just a fool for expectin’ better.” He crumples the handbill and tosses it over his shoulder.
Whether Buster is misanthropic or not, the Coens certainly are, which is highly unusual in their line of work. Most directors and screenwriters, knowing they have to please a mass audience, are chary of offending their patrons with the kind of black satire favored by the Coens.
Scruggs’s little treatise on human nature seems to speak for the Coens. In their eyes, human material is not of much account. Their characters are generally either perfidious, larcenous, and murderous on one side or, on the other, naive, foolish, and purblind—in other words, the traditional targets of satire: knaves and fools. In the Coens’ withering regard none of them deserve reprieve, neither for their villainy nor for their haplessness. Theirs is a take-no-prisoners satire.
The film’s first five episodes present evidence of our ferret nature. A cowboy (James Franco) turned bank robber finds his neck in a noose for a crime he didn’t commit. As he looks out at the crowd gathered round his gallows to see him hanged, he sees a beautiful young woman wearing an expression betokening a mixture of horror and bemusement. Surely, her role is to save him. Or is it?
Next a prospector (Tom Waits) enters a lush landscape in Colorado and meticulously pans for gold from a stream at the center of a valley. As we watch, we’re served an exactingly patient lesson on how panning is done. Only The Treasure of Sierra Madre took such care with the practicalities of mining. All goes well until another ferret shows up.
In the third episode Liam Neeson is an impresario traveling about in his wagon with an armless, legless, nameless young man (Harry Melling) who entertains frontier audiences by declaiming passages from the Bible, Shakespeare, the Gettysburg Address, and Shelley. “Ozymandias” is his favorite text, perhaps because it celebrates human arrogance in the face of futility.
In “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” the longest of the narratives, Zoe Kazan unexpectedly finds love with a kindly young man of genuinely noble instincts. Of course, it doesn’t last long.
The last tale, “The Mortal Remains,” serves as an explanatory coda to the preceding five. It takes place in a stagecoach driving five passengers to a hotel set in a barren and wholly inhospitable landscape. To pass the time, they discuss morality and the meaning of life. They’re especially intent on how to classify people. The woman, played by Tyne Daly, thinks it’s obvious: There are the upright and the sinning. A Frenchman in their party argues cynically that this is much too simple. People are too changeable for such a moral dichotomy. The one thing that can be said about people is that they are self-seeking, given as they are to pursuing their own advantages and pleasures, especially those of the flesh. In response, the lady chides the Frenchman. When he laughs at her, she begins to beat him with her umbrella. Then a wizened trapper traveling with them intervenes with his judgment. He’s the one who’s decided that people are like ferrets.
Another passenger, Thigpen (Jonjo O’Neill), an Englishman, undertakes to explain it all and, in the process, gives a lesson in the purpose of fiction. He and his partner, Clarence, are “reapers” or “harvesters of souls,” he explains. He tells stories to distract their targets and when they’re “ripe,” Clarence “thumps” them. His favorite for this purpose is “The Midnight Caller.” “You know the story,” he continues,
but people can’t get enough of . . . the familiar stories, like little children. Because they connect the stories to themselves, I suppose, and we all love hearing about ourselves, over and over. So long as the people in the story are us, but not us. Not us at the end, especially. The Midnight Caller gets him, never me . . . I’ll live forever.
So this is the role fiction plays in our lives. It paradoxically portrays mortality while distracting us from our own impending demise.
“I must say,” Thigpen concludes, that
it’s always interesting watching them after Clarence has worked his art. Watching them negotiate the . . . passage, trying 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, I do, I do.
“And do they ever succeed?” the lady asks, to which Thigpen shrugs. “How would I know? I’m just watching.”
Thigpen speaks for the Coens. While studiously agnostic with regard to life’s ultimate purpose, the Coens are nevertheless fascinated by the possibility of an answer to our mortal longings. This, I suppose, renders Scruggs autobiographical.
Alfonso Cuarón’s film Roma is also autobiographical. It takes its title from the Mexico City suburb in which Cuarón grew up in the 1970’s. There he learned something of class distinctions and racial divides. The place also acquainted him with male cruelty and irresponsibility.
The film focuses on a live-in housekeeper and nanny, Cleo, played by Yalitza Aparicio, a Mesoamerican from Oaxaca in her first acting role. Cleo is devoted to the family employing her, who treat her well even as they take her for granted. She, however, doesn’t give any indication of being offended by their casual indifference to her role in their lives.
The film has been compared with Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), but this is rather wide of the mark. De Sica was principally concerned with class differences and how the poor were ignored by the official class in Rome and Italy generally after World War II. Cuarón is not interested in politics. He’s interested in Cleo, who is based on Libo, the woman whom he came to regard as his second mother. How, he wonders, did she accept her lot with such uncomplaining grace?
Things change for Cleo when she becomes involved with Fermín, a martial artist manqué who trains with a paramilitary troop. He impregnates Cleo and then cruelly disclaims the child, threatening her should she continue to seek his help. Meanwhile, Sofía (Marina de Tavira, playing Cuarón’s mother) is abandoned by her husband. When Cleo tells Sofía of her pregnancy, the women form a deeper bond. Sofía arranges and pays for the care Cleo needs. When her time is due, Sofía takes her to the hospital. Then, in a harrowing sequence, we see Cleo deliver a stillborn daughter, after which the attending nurse in an act of kindness brings the dead baby to her bedside so she can briefly hold it. It’s a devastating moment. It’s then you realize that the film is not so much about Cuarón’s life as it is a feminist complaint against heartless masculinity.
Shot in a lustrous black-and-white, the film is both beautiful and wrenchingly hard to watch.