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
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.
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.