Culture & Criticism Since 2003
The Legend of Buster Scruggs ain’t a good movie. That’s not to say it ain’t good; it is. In fact, in spots it’s downright yee-haw great. But dagnabit, t’ain’t a movie! Whut it is is six of what you call your vignettes. Six independent stories, and the only thing they have in common is that it’s the mid 19th century in the West, that’s tuh say, when people talked lahk me.
OK, so I’m atrocious at the dialect. Londoners shouldn’t try to talk like Chester (“Mahshell Dillin!”). So I’ll stop.
To be precise, The Legend of Buster Scruggs is not a movie—it’s an anthology. Aside from the six stories being westerns, they’re also all done by the Coen Brothers – put on display with the full cinematic and emotional range of the duo’s work. And this, as any fan will tell you, is impressive.
True to their nature, the Coens take the most shopworn tropes in the genre, give them a coat of irony, and turn them on their head. Here you have The Gunslinger; The Bank Robber; The Carney; The Prospector; The Resourceful Single Gal; and the Dark Britons.
The first eponymous short story is violent slapstick. If you’re like me and get belly laughs out of Preacher, then you’re going to love this. But after that, the mood of the stories changes, quickly becoming darker and more serious. This is pure Coen Brothers: even the grimmest scenes have an acid-flashback limning of absurdity, and no matter how vile the character, the Coens find a way to make him engaging.
With the star power in the anthology, standout performances come as no surprise; nonetheless, the two most compelling are by actors who aren’t considered big names, at least as actors. In “All Gold Canyon,” Tom Waits plays a grizzled old prospector, and is probably the most sympathetic character in the whole anthology. There’s an almost sweet undercurrent of karma in this story; for once, characters get pretty much what they deserve. A conceit of the vignette is that the Prospector’s singing is so bad it drives all wildlife, even the fish, from the valley. Waits is absolutely perfect in the role.
But it’s the story that precedes “All Gold Canyon” that has the most arresting performance of them all. Harry Selling plays The Wingless Thrush in “Meal Ticket,” a figure who, not unlike Godot’s Lucky, engages in astonishing displays of verbal gymnastics on command. Other than that he is mute, lacking voice and other basic acting tools ( as body language). Thus, Melling must rely on facial expressions alone to convey the pathos, hopelessness, and desperation of his situation. Melling, known as the obnoxious cousin Dudley Dursley of the Harry Potter movies, is stellar here, bringing forward one of the great performances in the film.
Now on Netflix.
Bryan Zepp Jamieson was born in Ottawa, Canada and raised in London. He has lived in the Mount Shasta area since 1990, which he regards as the finest place on earth. Jamieson has spent the past 25 years as a graphic layout technician, web designer and writer, with over a thousand essays, a dozen short stories, and two novels – Ice Fall and Snow Fall – to his credit. In addition to his wife of 30-plus years, he normally lives with a dog and several cats, none of whom are impressed by him. Reach him through The Electric Review.