I thought I’d do something a little different for the Coen Brothers’ collection of Western shorts. Taken as a whole I enjoyed the piece, though I certainly thought this was a story selection with peaks and troughs, some sections which could have done with more Coenisms and others which could have done with less. I’d put it just below WILD TALES as an anthology film, and lower still in the brothers’ wider filmography. Here’s my take on each tale in isolation, as short Western tasters.
THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS I haven’t laughed so hard at anything else this year than Scruggs’ (Tim Blake Nelson) ingenious way of dispatching an armed opponent with a saloon table. Scruggs is a singin’, guitar playin’ fast drawer who’s equally likely to burst into song as kill you. He’s also an arrogant sumbitch liable to show off his shooting iron tricks before delivering the killing blow. Of course violence begets violence and sooner or later Scruggs’ actions will come back to bite him in the ass. Underlying message: Don’t get cocky, partner.
NEAR ALGODONES It’s pretty incredible, if you think about it, that James Franco’s characters aren’t hanged more often. He invariably plays shysters, scoundrels and scumbags and he should have to pay for it now and again. After he underestimates the sheer ferocity of an unassuming and rambling elderly bank clerk (Stephen Root), Franco’s cowboy finds himself precariously noosed and balanced on a horse liable to wander (this stretch couldn’t be more Coen-y). This is the next funniest tale after Scruggs, and goes in for similar comically exaggerated violence, though it lacks a really satisfying denouement. Underlying message: Nobody’s that lucky.
MEAL TICKET Abandon hope all ye who watch this one. This is the bleakest of bleak tales and it’s really quite startling to witness a story from the Coens without even a trace of levity. Liam Neeson’s travelling showman uses a limbless thespian’s (Harry Melling) famous speeches to scrape a livelihood, but it isn’t enough for him. The pair never share a conversation and Neeson doesn’t say anything beyond drunk rambling and haggling for business and leisure. Underlying message: We’re all absolute sh*ts.
ALL GOLD CANYON “Hello Mr Pocket!” Tom Waits was born to deliriously croak that. His prospector arrives in a beautiful, unspoiled valley and starts to dig for gold. After systematically working his way along a whole riverbank eventually finds gold, and the obsession over said gold makes him a trickier than usual old timer to snuff out when another interested party appears. That’s pretty much it, except for a slightly dodgy looking CG deer that probably means something. Underlying message: Greed can help you survive.
THE GAL WHO GOT RATTLED The only tale that could have probably survived expansion to a full feature on its own. In some ways this feels more akin to a Jane Austen adaptation, what with all the comedy of manners and faltering professions of passion between Zoe Kazan’s young widow and Bill Heck’s wagon train heartthrob. It’s also unapologetically a revisionist Western, while it is potentially romantic, life is shown to be unforgiving and cruel. Underlying message: There was a little bit of hope in the Old West, but it rarely lasted.
THE MORTAL REMAINS To cap off the enterprise the Coens go for a Poe-esque story that starts to drift genres. Here’s hoping for a gothic anthology somewhere in their future. An unlikely group of traveling companions journey in a coach and discuss life, death and the universe as their prejudices towards their fellow passengers bubble towards the surface. A couple of the travellers, and probably everyone’s real destination as well, aren’t what they seem. Brendan Gleason sings a lovely song. Underlying message: Be wary of weird travel companions. SSP