The Coen Brothers are filmmakers who have a long established track record but are so idiosyncratic that it is unwise to assume anything about their new works without confirmation. They are extremely inventive and original and also have an extremely dark sense of humor. I was a big fan of their work until I saw “No Country for Old Men.” Although I consider that movie a very good film the nihilistic story line coinciding with the state of affairs in the world in 2007 created a visceral reaction in me such that I avoided all of their subsequent films. This continued until they produced True Grit. At that point, because of the subject matter, curiosity got the better of me and I watched it. Well it was a very enjoyable film and for that reason I decided to give this other western film from the Coen Brothers a chance.
Last night I watched the Ballad of Buster Scruggs and true to form it was completely unpredictable. Or rather, in a predictably Coen Brothers manner it was extremely inventive and original and also had an extremely dark sense of humor. The movie is made of a series of six vignettes that share an Old West theme.
- “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”
- “Near Algodones”
- “Meal Ticket”
- “All Gold Canyon”
- “The Gal Who Got Rattled”
- “The Mortal Remains”
Because they’re all short stories I won’t spoil any of them by narrating them. None of the stories are related and the only recurring theme is the cruel irony that fate weaves into every story. Mixed in with this bleak picture are varying portions of humor, absurdity, cruelty, sadness, warmth and even affection. But the overarching impression is bitter humor. Several of the character sketches are intricate and appealing. Others are caricatures. But each of them is appropriate to the story in which it occurs. In one story having to do with a gold prospector, “All Gold Canyon,” the cinematography is extremely fine and the landscapes striking. In one story, “Meal Ticket,” there are grotesque aspects that are a bit off-putting so those who don’t care for such things should be forewarned.
Maybe because 2019 isn’t as depressing as 2007 I don’t find myself repelled by this movie as I was with their earlier one. Maybe it’s the historical separation that allows me emotional immunity from the dark content. I will recommend this movie for those who have a strong bent for darker content. Don’t look for any affirmation of life in this film. A sardonic leer is what it seems to offer in my estimation.
In the Coen Brothers’ version of “True Grit,” there are several conversations between Rooster Cogburn and Texas Ranger LeBoeuf where Rooster made it clear he considered LeBeouf a blowhard. After the incident where LeBoeuf is dragged feet first behind a horse and shot through his shoulder he is recovering in the cabin they have occupied.
(Inside the Cabin)
As Mattie enters. We see LeBoeuf musing before the fire as he cleans his Sharp’s carbine —an awkward operation given the injury to his shoulder, now bandaged. All we see of Rooster, seated further from the fire, is a pair of boots, and legs stretching into darkness. Mattie goes to the pot of food on the fire.
“Azh I understand it, Chaney——or Chelmzhford, azh he called himshelf in Texas——shot the shenator’zh dog. When the shenator remonshtrated Chelmzhford shot him azh well. You could argue that the shooting of the dog wazh merely an inshtansh of malum prohibitum, but the shooting of a shenator izh indubitably an inshtansh of malum in shay.”
Rooster is a voice in the darkness:
“Malum in se. The distinction is between an act that is wrong in itself, and an act that is wrong only according to our laws and mores. It is Latin.”
We hear the pthoonk of a bottle yielding its cork, followed by the pthwa of the cork’s being spit out.
“I am struck that LeBoeuf is shot, trampled, and nearly severs his tongue and not only does not cease to talk but spills the banks of English.”
We hear liquid slosh as the bottle is tipped back.
True Grit: The Duke, The Dude and the Dutiful Daughter; Part I
The Coen Brothers make a lot of interesting movies. Some I like more than others. Miller’s Crossing is one of my favorites. It’s a gangster story in an unidentified southern city during the 1930s. Albert Finney is Leo O’Bannon, an Irish gangster who runs the city. Gabriel Byrne is Tom Reagan, Leo’s right-hand man and best friend. Verna is Leo’s girl. But she’s also sleeping with Tom. Verna’s brother, Bernie (played by John Turturro) and Mink Larouie (played by Steve Buscemi) are small-time bookies who have crossed another gangster, Johnny Caspar. Caspar wants Bernie dead and Leo won’t let it happen because of Verna. Tom knows that Bernie and Verna spell disaster for Leo and advises him to give up Bernie. So, this is the complicated basis of the story.
But that’s not the reason to watch the movie. It’s a comic book version of a 30s gangster movie. A gangster can be bounced down three flights of marble stairs and walk away from it all in one piece. The cops and the city administration will switch back and forth between mob allegiances on an hour’s notice and bring to bear against their former allies all the force of military grade weaponry.
The movie has a fine soundtrack that includes popular music of the era, Irish folk music and even a little Italian opera. My favorite scene is an attempted mob rubout at Leo’s house. It’s a bullet riddled ballet to the accompaniment of Danny Boy. It’s in this scene that Albert Finney proves that a Thompson machine gun will never run out of ammunition. It’s a thing of nihilistic beauty.
Finney, Turturro and Buscemi are all extremely entertaining but Gabriel Byrne is the center of the movie. His character Tom is a hardened bitter man who nevertheless lives by a code that requires loyalty to a friend. In fact, his loyalty to Leo is the only admirable behavior displayed in the whole movie. And even this is wholly doomed by their relationships with Verna. Basically, everyone is corrupt. The good guys are mobsters. The bad guys are mobsters. There’s even a scene where a little kid sees a dead mobster on the street and steals his toupee.
And because this is a Coen Brothers movie it is suffused with black humor. Every mob rubout and brutal beating is chock full of jokes and wisecracks. The mobsters and cops in the movie are prone to witticisms and philosophical musings that probably rarely occur in real mobsters and cops. The best example is when Johnny Gaspar explains to Leo that Bernie’s selling of Johnny’s fixed fight information demonstrates Bernie’s lack of moral character.
Miller’s Crossing is a typical Coen Brothers movie. All the characters are morally compromised and happy endings are extremely scarce and never unmitigated. If you have enjoyed any of their other movies then I highly recommend Miller’s Crossing. Otherwise, read my description and decide for yourself if this type of film is for you.