The Coen Brothers

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

19/11/18

The release of a new Coen Brothers movie is always something to look forward to but, in what is fast becoming a trend, this classy anthology of Western-themed stories has gone directly to Netflix. Early talk of a simultaneous theatrical release doesn’t seem to be much in evidence and, ironically, if ever a Coen Brothers’ film deserves to be viewed on the big screen, this is the one. With its gorgeous location photography and scenes that pay homage to veteran directors like John Ford and Sergio Leone, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a veritable feast for the eyes and is hardly done justice by the modest screen we have at home.

Still, this being a Coen Brothers movie, we aren’t going to let the opportunity to see it pass us by, even if we’re obliged to watch it on an iPad.

The Coens have always proudly displayed their evident love of the Western genre. There is, of course, True Grit, a superb remake of one of John Wayne’s most successful oaters; but even the likes of Hail Caesar and The Big Lebowski have gleefully sported cowboy characters, strangely at odds with the times in which the action is set – and what is No Country For Old Men but a contemporary Western, replete with violent gunplay and frantic chases across arid landscapes?

The conceit of TBOBS is that it’s presented as a book of short stories, each one complete with an accompanying Frederic Remington-style illustration that directly refers to the action. The stories vary greatly in tone: from the titular, singing-cowboy spoof, in which Tim Blake Nelson portrays a kind of psychopathic Roy Rogers, to the dour and savage Meal Ticket, in which limbless actor, Harrison (Harry Melling), struggles to make a living as he tours his oratory skills around a succession of frontier towns, while his impassive minder (Liam Neeson) watches and draws up his merciless plans for survival.

If the stories have a theme in common it’s that all of them deal with different aspects of death. There’s also the overriding conviction that most characters in the old West were ruled by cold-blooded self-interest. Even The Gal Who Got Rattled, the closest this film has to offer us in the way of a love story (and arguably the most compelling of the six tales), is haunted by a powerful sense of tragedy.

This is one of the Coens’ finest achievements, a brutal, bloody compilation laced with a thread of the darkest humour imaginable. And, if I’m being honest, who knows how well this would have fared at the cinema, where six part Western anthologies are as rare as hen’s teeth and where, so often, it’s mediocrity that succeeds in putting bums on seats?

That said, if you should be lucky enough to live near a cinema that’s actually screening this little gem, mosey on down there and grab yourself a Stetson-full. Or just go to Netflix. The simple truth is that whatever sized screen you end up viewing it on, this is filmmaking of the highest calibre.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

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Suburbicon

07/11/17

A recent viewing of the trailer for Suburbicon led me to observe that the film looked ‘Coenesque’ – so it comes as no great surprise to learn that is actually based around an abandoned 1980s Coen Brothers screenplay, which has been reworked by director, George Clooney and by screenwriter, Grant Heslov. Fans of the brothers grim, may notice a passing similarity to the plot of one of their finest offerings, Fargo. Having said that, this film steers its own course and certainly has plenty to recommend it.

It’s the 1950s and the titular Los Angeles community styles itself as a kind of dream home for middle America, proudly boasting that in its idyllic realm, there is no crime and everybody is welcome – that is until the Mayers family takes up residence. The Mayers , you see, are African-Americans and it’s soon made abundantly clear to them that the all-compassing welcome doesn’t actually apply to them. (It’s interesting to note that this part of the story is based on a real life family, the Myers, who suffered similar problems when they moved into a residence in Charlotteville Virginia in 1957). What starts as a few silent protesters balefully watching their home steadily builds until things degenerate into an all-out riot.

But while everyone’s focus is on the Meyers’ house, it’s clear that something very unpleasant is happening right next door. Young Nicky Lodge (Noah Jupe) is woken one night by his father, Gardner (a beefed up Matt Damon) who tells him that a couple of intruders are in the house and he is to do whatever they tell him. As Nicky watches dumbfounded, Gardner, his crippled wife, Rose and her twin sister, Margaret, (both played by Julianne Moore) are all chloroformed to unconsciousness, shortly before he is given the same terrifying treatment. When he wakes up, he learns that Rose has died – and pretty soon, his Aunt Margaret moves into the house to lend her support. Nicky gradually begins to understand that things are not quite as they seem…

One of Suburbicon’s strengths is that much of the story is seen from Nicky’s point of view and the growing realisation that he is living in a poisonous environment is expertly handled. His burgeoning friendship with young Andy Meyers (Tony Espinosa) is also nicely reined in, just two young boys getting amiably along, the message all the stronger for not being hammered home with a mallet. This being a Coen storyline, there are of course a couple of memorable villains (Alex Hassell and Glenn Fleshler, doing a kind of demented Laurel and Hardy routine) and there’s a nice cameo by Oscar Isaac as a snoopy insurance investigator.

As the story accelerates towards its conclusion, we head into Pardoner’s Tale territory, as everyone homes in on the lure of a huge insurance payout – but Nicky (and the Meyers family) are the only characters here who really deserve our compassion, and the film kept me rooting for them right up to the end.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney