This Is a Movie Review: The Coen Brothers Sing ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ and Other Tales in This Western Anthology

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CREDIT: Netflix

This review was originally published on News Cult in November 2018.

Starring: Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Stephen Root, Tom Waits, Liam Neeson, Harry Melling, Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Running Time: 132 Minutes

Rating: R for Surprisingly, Perhaps Hilariously, Deadly Gunfire

Release Date: November 8, 2018 (Limited Theatrically)/November 16, 2018 (Streaming on Netflix)

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has a Buster Scruggs problem. That is to say: Buster’s not in it enough! That can be the trouble with anthology films in which no characters appear in more than one segment. This issue can be alleviated, at least somewhat, if there are multiple memorable roles. But when Tim Blake Nelson saunters into town in his white cowboy suit, guitar in tow, he immediately wins us over with his storytelling aplomb, extreme self-confidence, and superhuman marksmanship. As Buster’s is the first story, he sets a rollicking, self-aware tone that makes us want to spend as much time with him as possible. Alas, it is not meant to be. But surely, he could have been a narrator or a wandering troubadour throughout! As it is, though, his arrival brings us pleasure, while his quick departure only leaves us hungry for more.

The other segments are more scattershot, but if you believe that the Coen brothers’ droll humor belongs in a Western setting, then you should find enough to enjoy. The three chapters immediately following the titular kickoff – in which bank robber James Franco gets his comeuppance, Liam Neeson puts on a travelling show, and Tom Waits goes prospecting for gold, respectively – wrap up before they are able to have much of an impact. It gets better and deeper with “The Girl Who Got Rattled,” in which Zoe Kazan plays a single frontierswoman who must summon an unexpected amount of independence, while also dealing with a surprising, but perhaps promising, marriage proposal. It’s actually quite sweet, but then a Coen-style cruel twist of fate swoops in, leaving you a little devastated but narratively satisfied. The concluding chapter, “The Mortal Remains,” is more of a tone piece than anything else, with a group of strangers in a carriage on its way to somewhere resembling purgatory, or maybe even Hell. As one of the passengers, Tyne Daly is a force of nature to bring us home, but even she cannot quite protect us in this harsh landscape. It’s an otherworldly approach befitting filmmakers who are heavily influenced by the Old Testament God, and while I may find The Ballad of Buster Scruggs to be a minor Coen effort, it is not without plenty to chew over.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is Recommended If You Like: Coen brothers comedy in general, but can deal with scattershot results

Grade: 3 out of 5 Color Plates

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Suburbicon’ Pokes at the Myth of a Utopian America by Exposing Both Latent Criminality and Racism to Chaotic, Intermittently Thrilling, Results

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CREDIT: Paramount Pictures/Black Bear Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2017.

Starring: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe, Oscar Isaac, Glenn Fleshler, Jack Conley, Gary Basaraba

Director: George Clooney

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: R for Wiseguy-Style Punching, Stabbing, Explosions, and Poisoning and Some Slap-Happy Hanky-Panky

Release Date: October 27, 2017

In the perfect mid-20th Century American town of Suburbicon (basically Leave It to Beaver sprung to life), the dream of raising a family with no worries and getting along with all your neighbors has been fully, uniformly realized. Or at least, that’s how it’s being sold. Whenever a movie begins with a montage praising picture-perfect suburbia, it is clear that we are actually in for satire. In this case, it is a violently screwball riff on Double Indemnity.

The idea that a utopian town can really exist is punctured fairly immediately when the home of Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) and his wife Rose (Julianne Moore) is invaded by a couple of goons intent on thievery and terrorizing. Rose ends up dying at the hands of the thieves, leaving Gardner to raise their son Nicky (Noah Jupe) with the help of Rose’s twin sister Margaret (also Moore). But it soon becomes clear that Gardner and Margaret were behind Rose’s death, for the sake of paying off Gardner’s mob debts and so that they can cash in on the life insurance policy on Rose and escape to a Caribbean paradise. So this really is 100% Double Indemnity in the Cleavers’ neighborhood.

Ultimately, though, Suburbicon does not offer much new to say with its recontextualization, save for Matt Damon riding a comically undersized bicycle. Considering the talent assembled, that is notably disappointing. But it is not entirely surprising, as the array of violence involves the Coen brothers (who wrote the script along with Clooney and Grant Heslov) indulging in their most outrageous tendencies. At least Oscar Isaac livens things up quite a bit as the claims adjuster of claims adjusters, though his appearance is all too brief (somewhat necessarily so).

But wait! If that narrative disappoints you, why not check out the other fully fleshed out story existing within the very same movie? Suburbicon has just welcomed its first black family, although “welcomed” is far from the right word for many residents. It seems that this town’s ideals are false not just because it cannot keep the mob at bay but also because its lily-white identity includes a big hunk of racism.

If this sounds like two completely different movies, that it is in fact how much of it plays out. But that is also kind of the point. The racism portion gets relatively short shrift, but the idea does seem to be that Suburbicon, and in turn America, would like to pretend that this problem does not exist. That is a tricky point to make, though, and Suburbicon’s touch is not exactly delicate. Ultimately, then, the film is well-intentioned, but its tone is too all over the place for those intentions to be as clear as they need to be.

Suburbicon is Recommended If You Like: Anything and everything influenced by Double Indemnity, The Coen Brothers at their most cartoonishly violent, Two movies with starkly different focuses smooshed together

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Explosions