“The Ballad of Buster Skruggs”

 

            When it's Ethan and Joel Cohen, we've come to expect good quality, with a touch of the bizarre.  This Western is like Larry McMurtry meets Stephen King.

            It's actually 6 short stories set in the West.  Think cowboys, cattle drives, the Oregon Trail, and six-shooters.  Some Native Americans on the warpath. (We can't say “Injuns” anymore.)  Stagecoaches and saloons.  Wide-open prairies and unspoiled countryside.

            In one scenario, a singing cowboy also knows how to prevail in a gunfight.  But no matter how fast you are, there's always someone faster, isn't there?

            A robber trying to rob a seemingly remote bank finds more resistance than he bargained for.  And have you ever heard of “out of the frying pan and into the fire”?

            A prospector enjoys his time out by the river, panning for those elusive gold nuggets.  He talks to himself a lot, and sometimes to his mule.  He occasionally sings.  But after not seeing anybody for days, suddenly a claim jumper makes an unwelcome entrance.

            At a boarding house, the conversation is lively, and the food plentiful, but a couple decides to leave the next day for a business opportunity, and perhaps a promised romantic encounter.  But their adventure is full of the unexpected, including a yipping dog that just won't go away, causing precipitous events among the humans.

            A carnival barker sets up a traveling one-man show, and collects coins in his hat after people gather to hear incredible soliloquys from an unexpected source.  But no show lasts forever.  There's always the lure of the newest attraction.

            There's not much romance here, but there is some sweet-awkward exchanges between two lonely people who might have had a chance for happiness, if only Fate hadn't unkindly intervened.

            Five well-dressed passengers are tightly squeezed together in a stagecoach.  One of them happily sings in a lively tenor voice, and later on, another offers a baritone ballad.  In between, we have a self-righteous, buttoned-up old lady with her Bible and her quick judgments.  We have an old fur trapper who doesn't get to talk enough on his wilderness expeditions, so he tries to make up for it with his captive audience.  But they don't all agree with his assessment that everybody is pretty much alike.  The gambler thinks that life is simply to be enjoyed as much as possible for as long as possible.  But just because there's a corpse tied to the top of the stagecoach doesn't mean that the stench of death doesn't already surround them.

            Yes, we have careful character development interrupted by sudden violence.  We have good people and bad, and you can't tell the difference by their demeanor.

            Criticisms?  Sure.  It's ridiculously fanciful in some places, and disappointingly tragic in others. The last vignette is the weakest, and it's too long.

            But, the vistas are grand.  The music is a constant companion, and enhances the experience.  The Old West of the Cohen Brothers doesn't much resemble our current manner of living, which is why it remains a fascinating conundrum.

           

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association