Review -Titillating Tall Tales (“The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs”)

Don’t you just LOVE the Coen Brothers? I do. Their Big Lebowski, Fargo, Raising Arizona, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and No Country For Old Men are some of the most awesome movies ever made. Comedy or drama, these guys write and direct with a bizarre, chaotic style that is undeniably their own. This is their first anthology movie.
*
 
In this six-episode Western (which begins with an old book opening to the pages), we are introduced to the narrator, Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), a roaming white-suited cowboy who is not only a lethal gunslinger, but a singer and rather eloquent trash-talker. From there we go to Near Algodones and follow an unlucky cowboy (James Franco) who attempts to rob a bank out in the middle of nowhere with disastrous results. After he hangs around a bit, the next story swings into view, and it’s called Meal Ticket.
 
A traveling side-show, run by a silent entrepreneur (Liam Neeson), goes from town to town displaying his Amazing Orator (Harry Melling–OMG! Is that a slimmed-down Dudley Dursley from all the Harry Potter movies?), an armless, legless man who enthralls audiences with his brilliant and moving quotations and stirring monologues. But what happens when the bitter cold comes and the crowds aren’t as many as they should be? Hmmm? Then there’s All Gold Canyon, where a grizzled old prospector (Tom Waits) is looking for gold. Obsessed with finding it in a beautiful and tranquil valley setting, he sets about digging for gold until he hits the mother lode.
 
The Gal Who Got Rattled is my favorite and is by far the most tragic. Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) is a young, shy, and repressed Pioneer woman traveling in a wagon train from Oregon to California for an arranged marriage she does not want. Along the way, she meets Bill Knapp (Billy Heck), a handsome cowboy who, along with rugged ol’ Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines), run the wagon train. There’s adventure, death, and a reason to get a box of tissues ready. The final chapter is The Mortal Remains, a story reminiscent of the stagecoach ride in Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Five strangers discuss various topics while they ride towards a hotel at Fort Morgan. They are: English bounty hunters (Jonjo O’Neill & Brendan Gleeson), a Frenchman who speaks his mind (Saul Rubinek), a judge-mental Christian woman (Tyne Daly), and a nutty old crusty trapper (Chelcie Ross).
 
Written and directed by the Coen Brothers, this gaggle of Western tales range from the excellent, to the meh, to the OMG! to the “well, THAT was a waste of time”. Anthology movies are always a tricky thing (Creepshow, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Pulp Fiction); so you better be sure you got some damn good stories to tell within the confines of the film, or the whole thing falls apart. Now the Coen Bros (Joel & Ethan) have written some truly heart-rendering stories here, and others that just lay there with a big question mark at the end. It’s sad that the bookends (Scruggs & Remains) don’t justify the whole. Although I will say, I was totally captivated by Scruggs, felt my jaw drop in Meal Ticket, was amused in Algodones, and in Gal/Rattled, my heart just broke.
 
The others were good, mind you, with some great performances (Tom Wait is especially strong in All Gold Canyon, as are Kazan & Heck in Rattled), but the stories didn’t have that extra punch or any Shyamalan twist at the end that SO needed it. Another thing I LOVE about these stories is the magical Coen Bros. direction. They don’t direct a movie so much as craft a movie; their camera artistry is so fluid, so mesmerizing, you just can’t help but admire it.

**Note: This movie, distributed by Netflix, is only running in some theaters as a limited release, and on Netflix’s streaming service. Do yourself a favor and see this!!
           
 
Grim Prairie Tales (1990)
*
 
Imagine, if you will, Chucky the doll and Thulsa Doom swapping tall tales in the Old West that are supposed to be ‘blood curdling’, but turn out to be dull, boring, and lacking an ending. That’s pretty much the plot of this misfire of a movie that came & went back in the 90’s that wanted to be a Western Night Gallery with a Stephen King twist.
 
It’s the 1800’s (I guess) and city slicker Farley Deeds (Brad Dourif) is on his way to Jacksonville, Wyoming to see his wife. But in the middle of nowhere, his late night campfire is joined by a burly, long-haired bounty hunter named Morrison (James Earl Jones) who may, or may not be (I’m guessing he is), slightly bi-polar. After briefly squab-bling about their journeys and this ‘n’ that, Morrison offers tight-ass Deeds a story. Why? To move the plot along, silly!
 
Anyway, Morrison regales Deeds with a quick little story about a grouchy old man (Will Hare) who, after desecrating an Indian burial ground, gets buried alive by some local Indians as he sleeps. Loving the story (but also confused by the ending–and who can blame him), Deeds wants another, so Morrison obliges. This really weird one is about a young lone traveler (Marc McClure) who kindly helps a seemingly pregnant woman (Michelle Joyner) in trouble. She rewards him by (are you ready for this) sucking him into her vagina when they make love! I’m not kidding! This story repulses Deeds SO much he challenges Morrison with a story of his own.
 
Deeds tells the lurid tale of a homesteading family where the seemingly loving father (William Atherton) is called upon by some friends because of a “business problem”, but in fact, it’s a brutal lynching of a family of three! The teenage daughter (Wendy J. Cooke) sneaks out and witnesses the atrocity, only to comforted later by her mom (Lisa Eichorn) who tells her that her dad isn’t a monster. WTH?! Morrison, upset that he liked Deeds story better than his own, retaliates with a final story about a gunfight.
 
This last story deals with an egotistical gunslinger (Scott Paulin) going for a ‘job inter-view’ of sorts. If he kills the slovingly gross Comanchero (Bruce Fischer) he’ll get to work for Bill Horn (Tom Simcox), a super-wealthy cattleman. Oh sure, he wins, but the grue-some, bloody death of the Comanchero haunts him to the point of death. Finally, it’s daybreak. The sun is up, the stories are all finished, and the two ride off together. The End. What a dumb movie!
 
How BAD was this movie? This marked writer/director Wayne Coe’s first and last motion picture. Ever. Mostly a storyboard artist, this was only foray into movie-making and it bombed big time. He tried to write somewhere in the neighborhood of Stephen King meets Rod Serling, but failed on both counts. Of the four ‘stories’ told, only one (the final one) had any kind of decent pay-off. The main story of Deeds & Morrison was terribly underwritten and had awful dialogue. You wanted, nay, DESERVED a twist, a turn, something after sitting for over an hour and 35 minutes.
 
Dourif & Jones (two fine actors) do the best they could, but all they can manage was a chatty, strange, and non-sensical tête-à-tête between them. Seriously, this is Dourif and Jones! Get Chucky to whip out a kitchen knife and Thulsa Doom pull out his long sword and have them go at each other! The other actors in the stories either over-acted (Atherton) or were DOA (Eichorn). To make matters worse, Coe shot almost the entire movie with dark night-time scenes! You can’t see what’s happening! Oy! One single redeeming factor: the gunslinger episode was very good, featuring a quick animated nightmare cartoon that was quite disturbing.

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