Monday, August 10, 2020

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

Anthology pictures like this exercise from the Coen brothers are famous for being hit and miss, not to mention stop-and-start as they lurch from climax to fresh start over and over. They seem to come more often as horror (V/H/S, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Kwaidan, Dead of Night) but Buster Scruggs suggests it may be a matter of genre. At least, these stories often feel like genuine 20th-century pulp, dime novel, or comic book fiction in the ways they are put together. For example, in "Near Algodones," a man protects himself from gunfire by draping himself in pots and pans (and tauntingly calling out "Pan-shot!" every time one is hit). The experience of anthology pictures is also a bit like approaching a short story collection—somehow it's often more attractive to fall into a headlong extended tale than to chew off bites of beginning-middle-end. In fact, Buster Scruggs is explicitly built on the conceit of a story collection, with color plates and six tales distributed across a little more than two hours. I've seen ranking lists around the internet, which is another thing you do with anthologies, and of course I have my own ideas about weakest ("All Gold Canyon") and strongest ("The Gal Who Got Rattled"). Interestingly, for what it's worth, those two are the only stories not original with the Coens. "The Mortal Remains," the finisher, has some problems too. But even those two weakest have high points and are done well and completely entertaining. They're all pretty good. The Coens bring their own vivid flourishes of extravagant violence, as they will. It's very funny in the title piece, gleefully turning to Sam Raimi's Evil Dead style of slapstick for one memorable saloon confrontation. It's a bit more tiresome in "Near Algodones." The best of these stories, "The Gal" and "Meal Ticket," have tremendous bolts of pathos and achieve a natural grace and quiet, even in all the tumult. The ghost story of "The Mortal Remains," which moves like Stagecoach and/or the stagecoach section of The Hateful 8, may be trying too hard to leave the picture on a profound note, with a kind of inexplicable cross-up between Amelia Edwards's 19th-century story "The Phantom Coach" and an Emily Dickinson poem. But it has its points. They all do.

No comments:

Post a Comment