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kenmorefield

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

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I usually find myself the ambivalent cousin to the family of Coen admirers, but I confess this movie worked well for me. The anthology format plays to what I consider the Coens' strengths--quick and precise characterization and scenes with multiple layers--while downplaying what I consider their weaknesses--tonal shifts that are initially endearing but too numerous and quirkiness (or grotesques) for their own sake rather than in service to a larger story. 

I did think it went on one story too long, so I might downgrade it a half star on a second viewing if I can't figure out how that chapter relates to what I thought was the whole, but I am glad I saw this in the theater rather than streaming. 

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Which chapter was that, Ken?

Jessica and I watched this on Netflix two nights ago and loved it.  I think it's their best film since A Serious Man; as someone who considers them contemporary masters but had been underwhelmed by their work of the past 9 years, Buster Scruggs comes as a huge relief to me.  

I think my favorite chapters were "The Gal Who Got Rattled" and "The Mortal Remains."  The former showed an empathy and humanity that are often submerged in the Coens' films under layers of irony and foible-skewering, so it was a refreshing change, with a touching relationship at its core.  The latter seemed like a perfect finish, with a perfectly eerie milieu and a satisfying meditation on human nature and our uses of stories, both conscious and unconscious.

Here's my full review: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/2018/11/the-ballad-of-buster-scruggs-has-the-coen-brothers-back-in-top-form/

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I was mixed-to-positive on this, until that final story, "The Mortal Remains." Then I just loved it. What an ending! I'm not sure why the Coens haven't done an anthology like this before, as it does seem to highlight much of their darkly comic worldview in a way which doesn't feel quite so heavy (Miller's Crossing) but also doesn't veer too far into the silly terrain (The Hudsucker Proxy). They seem to having a lot of fun with this, as much as human mortality could be considered "fun." Shooting in digital was interesting too, and worked really well in some scenes. Stephen Root's "pan shot!" character is in the running for one of my favorite supporting performances of 2018. It's such a small, brief role, but it's instantly iconic, and Root imbues it with a madcap delirium.

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I'm still looking forward to watching this, because the Coens' have rarely disappointed me, but another friend whom I respect called my attention to this Forbes review by Sarah Aswell, "The Absent Women of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," and I'm sure I'll be aware of it as I watch:

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The movie as a whole brings so much that we expect from Coen Brothers movies: extremely dark humor, the sharpest writing, memorable characters, visual treats, and quirky, beautiful, fun storytelling. But it also misses an opportunity that the Coen Brothers often love to take: the opportunity to expose and then elevate the genre that they’re toying with.

...

While the Coen Brothers more than happily throw out some aspects of the problematic Western, they embrace and preserve two big ones. They cling to the most basic Western stereotypes of Native characters, and they, in large part, ignore and flatten women.

 

Edited by BethR

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Beth, I anticipated that criticisms such as those you shared would emerge regarding Buster Scruggs.  FWIW, the most fully developed character in their anthology is Zoe Kazan's, though she is a variation on the 'damsel in distress' trope.  Then again, in their full-length Western, True Grit, Hailee Steinfeld's character was completely counter to the usual female roles in Westerns.

I'm left wondering if it's unfair to expect a single film to right all of the wrongs across the history of a film genre, but maybe that's just my white male privilege talking.

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3 hours ago, Andrew said:

I'm left wondering if it's unfair to expect a single film to right all of the wrongs across the history of a film genre, but maybe that's just my white male privilege talking.

 

I also wonder how much of this is carried over from bitter aftertaste of Coen's dismissing diversity questions in the midst of OscarSoWhite era: https://mic.com/articles/134465/the-coen-brothers-don-t-understand-questions-about-diversity-in-film#.bbPNYPSDh

I also wonder if being aware of issues in a genre or period you are satirizing or deconstructing is sufficient answer to the criticism that you are participating in it. 

I'm reminded in a weird sort of way of Peaches Henry's article reprinted in the Bedford Critical edition of Huck Finn where she talks about how calling something a satire isn't necessarily a sufficient answer to those who find depictions of race offensive if the data suggests that most readers (in her article's case, junior-high readers, specifically) don't recognize it as such. In the quote above--I haven't read the whole article--Aswell seems perfectly aware that the Coen's are winking at the genre conventions (expose), so is the problem here that they don't "elevate"? Is this a binary choice? (If you don't elevate after exposing you are de facto embracing?) 

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I can empathize with interpretations pointing out some of the problematic portrayals of woman in Buster Scruggs, but I found that to be more a positive than a negative on the film. The approach is highly satirical, a send-up in the vein of the Coens' entire filmography. Every male in Buster Scruggs is a criminal, comic relief, or a deconstruction of the Western male cowboy--e.g. Billy Knapp is probably the closest to being the "ideal" Cowboy of the Western genre, but he is noticeably absent from the climactic conflict, and pretty useless to Zoe Kazan's character, as noted at this Film Comment article from Michael Koresky, "The Paragon of Animals" (ht to Ryan Holy and Darryl Armstrong for sharing this):

Quote

Moving from the “glory” of the Gold Rush to the “optimism” of the Oregon Trail, chapter five finds a perfectly cast Zoe Kazan as a pious young woman en route to meet a potential husband (who may or may not know she exists), accompanied by her tubercular brother and an extended caravan moving northwest. Another focal point emerges in Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), a handsome, kind-eyed cowhand who vows to protect Kazan’s single “little lady” during the journey once her sibling is out of the picture. Yet whether it’s his promise to haggle over a payment she owes to a moody wrangler, solve the very real problem of a ceaselessly yapping little puppy, or provide proper guidance and safety over the course of the dangerous trip, Billy proves mild, self-doubting, hapless. This creates a narrative of false starts, in which heroism, resourcefulness, and romance are replaced by a series of dispassionate transactions and barters. Much is promised and little is achieved in “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” which climaxes in Buster Scruggs’s only real indulgence in the dime-store Western’s reliable “cowboys and Indians” trope, when certain members of the caravan come up against a group of Comanches—first spotted, naturally, as menacing dots on the horizon. Up to this point, the Coens have so painstakingly painted their parade of white characters as blunderers and despoilers pushing ahead with abandon that this battle feels properly detached from any notions of winners or losers. And its ironic final “joke” registers, powerfully, as little more than a witless shame.

So, in a film where the joke is on everyone and positions of power or tradition are deconstructed and lampooned, I think it's probably better that women are (usually) not the brunt of those jokes (Kazan's character and Tyne Daly's uptight wealthy woman in "The Mortal Remains" notwithstanding). More problematic for me are the portrayals of indigenous people, although I'm unsure whether the Coens' camera is painting them in a negative or satirical light, or what the purpose is behind making some of the most violent scenes occur at the hands of attacking Native Americans. It's provocative, to be sure.

Edited by Joel Mayward

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