The Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan Cohen, are renowned for the breadth of their work and the variety of film genres that they tackle – from the dark drama of No Country for Old Men to the high camp of Hail Caesar. The brother’s modus operandi includes the high standard of their screenplays, the quirky or subversive content, and their ability to assemble casts which include many heavy hitters within a relatively modest budget. Their process of working together over many different disciplines including writing the screenplays, directing, producing and editing, has allowed them much greater critical success across the awards boards than most other directors.
The Cohen’s critical success started right out of the gate with their first commercial release, Blood Simple. From then onwards, the brothers have created a meaty awards scorecard with an impressive 48 Oscar nominations and 7 wins (in addition to this year’s 3 nominations for Buster Scruggs). Their most critically successful film to date is the stunning No Country for Old Men which won 4 out of 8 Oscar nominations in 2008 (with Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay going to the Coens, and best Supporting Actor to Javier Bardem). They also received an impressive 7 Oscar nominations for Fargo (my personal favourite Coen Brothers movie), but only scored 2 wins on that occasion (for Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress (Frances McDormand, wife of Joel and their most regular collaborator)). Their only other Oscar movie win was for Bridge of Spies in 2016 (Best Supporting Actor, Mark Rylance) out of their 6 other nominations.
Undoubtedly their biggest Oscar disappointment was with 2011’s True Grit, which had 10 nominations but no wins. Like Meryl, it seems that the Cohens are often the bridesmaid and not the bride, going away empty handed at the Oscars with Barton Fink, O Brother Where Art Thou?, The Man Who Wasn’t There, A Serious Man, Inside Llewyn Davis, Unbroken and Hail Caesar.
Reflecting on this truly impressive and diverse list of critically acclaimed work reminds us that they have established a track record of unparalleled quality, consistency and creativity. Virtually every project that they have embarked on has been showered with awards, nominations and critical respect – and Buster Scruggs is no different
Underlying each of the six short stories in Buster Scruggs is a hauntingly beautiful original score and soundtrack. Interestingly, one of the songs (the bizarrely named ‘When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings’) has been nominated for the Best Original Song Oscar. This is one of 3 Oscar nominations received by Buster Scruggs, in addition to Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Costume Design.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs appears first and is easily the best of the bunch. It is a quirky, camp musical about a sharp-shooting singing cowboy who kills and maims with a courteous smile on his face and a song on his lips. It is impossible not to like it – just as it is impossible not to be a little bit conflicted to find yourself laughing out loud at such violence! The music is surprisingly fun (as you would expect from a singing cowboy) with two main songs – Surly Joe is and Buster’s final number, the aforementioned When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings. If nothing, the film definitely deserves recognition for most bizarre song title!
The Gal Who Got Rattled (starring Zoe Kazan) is a story of a downtrodden young woman travelling on a wagon train to start a new life in Oregon. During the journey, she garners the attention of a rather charming cowboy in charge of the train and their star-crossed tale begins. You won’t be surprised to know that it isn’t that simple, with an ending that packs quite an emotional punch. Zoe Kazan’s performance is beautifully observed, showing us a young woman who has always been told what to do by the men in her life, and who is still reliant on doing what she is told. (Interesting fact – her grandfather was the legendary Elia Kazan, described as one of the best directors of his age, who gave us classic films like On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire)
Meal Ticket stars Liam Neeson as a small-time travelling impresario, who goes from town to town setting up his wagon for outdoor theatre shows. His act is an entertainer called Harrison: the Wingless Thrush, a young man with no arms or legs who recites excerpts from Shakespeare, The Gettysburg Address, and Shelley’s Ozymandias. It’s a very hard life and a poorly remunerated one. When Neeson sees an animal act (a counting chicken) which is earning much more money than Harrison, he buys the chicken. The ending is very sombre, and the lesson is that there is no loyalty in showbusiness. Almost as shocking as the story itself, is the fact that Harrison is played by a grown-up and almost unrecognisable Harry Melling, known for his part as Dudley in the Harry Potter series.
The Mortal Remains is a dark and slightly other-worldly story, focusing on a coach journey. The two bounty hunters coax their other passengers into a strangely dark discussion about life and death. The other passengers – one a coarse trapper, one a Frenchman and the final a pious woman (played by Tyne Daley) – are in robust disagreement about the meaning of human nature and morality, and the only thing that they agree on is that death is the only common denominator. The trapper’s singing gives us the soundtrack for this story, but even the music is darkly appropriate – his final song is ‘Pills of White Mercury’ and about a man dying of syphilis. It is obvious that something here is not quite right, but the answer is not given to you explicitly.
All Gold Canyon is the most uplifting of all the stories (of sorts). It is the story of a grizzly old prospector (beautifully played by Tom Waits) who fulfils his lifelong dream to find gold in a stunning and untouched valley. You will not be surprised to hear that is not without problems and complications. However, he seems to be a decent guy, and you find yourself rooting for him, hoping to some end that he might get his happy ending. It’s one of the nicer (if that can be said of a Cohen Brother’s movie) stories of the lot, which is enhanced by the fabulous scenery and a sweeping musical score.
Near Algodones stars James Franco as a law-breaking cowboy who seems at first to have a knack of escaping justice and death. But Franco’s character soon finds out that when your scorecard is marked, you can’t escape the inevitable – a theme in this very short story that says that a lucky break is not always what it seems!
Overall, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is like a smorgasbord for any film fan. From an excellent film soundtrack, to an extraordinarily well-balanced and high standard series of stories, I’m not surprised that it has done so well with the critics and at this year’s film awards. There are lots of tasty story bites, with something to please every viewer. And if you have not previously been a fan of the Coen Brothers and this has given you a taste for their work, try No Country for Old Men or Fargo.