Dir; Joel and Ethan Coen. Starring; James Franco, Liam Neeson, Tim Blake Nelson. R. Color. 132 Min
Growing up in New Mexico, I never enjoyed the old westerns my grandfather used to fall asleep to in the early afternoon. Perhaps I was not impressed with the immense landscapes that viewers from less barren parts of the world saw as poetic as they were my normal environment. Somewhere along the line, and I can’t quite pinpoint when, I came to realize that westerns had become one of my favorite genres.
Joel and Ethan Coen, who have already succeed twice in the genre with “No Country for Old Men” (2007) and “True Grit” (2010), have chosen to approach the western narrative with a series of six vignettes that are told as if they were individual pieces of a bedtime story collection. At times, each story can walk the boundary between brilliance and absurdity, but ultimately the film succeeds in its courage to go for such risks. Teaming up with Netflix, the Coen brothers embrace the clichés that made westerns so popular, but they do so in a way that reminds us of the ruthless brutality that our country was built on
The first piece is a story of an overconfident singing outlaw named Buster Scruggs, played by long time collaborator Tim Blake Nelson, who smiles his way through any tense situation but will someday perhaps fall victim to his prideful sin. He parades into town with his blinding white cowboy hat and acts as if he is untouchable and any man who challenges him is sure to find themselves being scrapped off the street.
The second story has James Franco as a bank robber who cheats the hangman when a convenient attack by Native Americans leaves him stranded with a noose around his neck atop a hungry horse. After being saved by a criminal cattle driver, he is once again captured and sentenced to hang for illegal cattle driving he truly had no part of. In both cases, the Coens make an obvious statement about the criminal justice system where the defendant is essentially “guilty until proven innocent”.
The third tale entitled “Meal Ticket”, has Liam Neeson as a traveling showman who exploits a limbless thespian to perform for impromptu crowds until, show after show, the crowds dismiss while Neeson’s disdain for his counterpart grows. I found this segment to be the weakest of the six, however the ending is perhaps the most effective.
In the fourth vignette, we find Tom Waits who plays a lonely gold prospector that stumbles upon a beautiful unoccupied valley where he scientifically discovers the exact location of his would be fortune. After making peace with nature and spending what seems like a week digging holes, he finally lays eyes on the gold he has been working for. Unfortunately he does not lay his eyes on what was lurking just behind his back.
The fifth story, which was the strongest, tells of a young woman (Zoe Kazan) who is traveling the Oregon Trail with her brother in a long convoy of wagons with his Jack Russell Terrier whose barking annoys the rest of the convoy. After her brother’s unexpected death, Ms. Longabaugh learns that her brother’s debts are unable to be paid and ends up finding solace in the charismatic man who leads the caravan. This segment is a beautifully crafted two act Shakespearean tragedy that is as perfect as any work the Coens have crafted to date.
The final installment is essentially a slowly building horror story about five strangers sharing a stagecoach on its way to a nearby town. Two of the passengers are revealed to be bounty hunters with a fresh kill strapped to the roof of the carriage. As they all get acquainted along the way, the sense of eeriness increases in unison with the setting sun. Once they reach their dark and foggy destination, the three non-killers are perhaps too frightened to share a hotel with the corpse of a wanted man.
As a whole, the film hits the mark on the classic motifs we have come to love about westerns. It is both tender and viscous. Silly yet harrowing. Perhaps we are so drawn to these films because the old west is not so unlike our own lives. Among all the laughs and the violence, we are all faced with the same thing…Life.
Watch the film now streaming on Netflix