6. Meal Ticket
There isn’t a weak link in the Coen Brothers new Western anthology film but this segment, with Liam Neeson and Harry Melling, might stretch viewer patience just a little. Certainly you can’t help but feel that five minutes could have been shaved off this to the benefit of one of the other pieces. Neeson plays a taciturn travelling showman and Melling his single act, silent off stage but oratorically expansive on it. We see Melling’s same performance repeatedly in the twenty minute running time as well as snippets of the men’s relationship behind the curtain. It isn’t clear the nature of their companionship until dwindling crowds test it and by the end these two men have said a great deal about the power of public preferences and audiences whims, in our time as much as theirs, without saying very much to one another at all.
5. All Gold Canyon
People’s ideas of the Western landscape are generally of sandy vistas and monumental rock formations but this story showcases a lush green valley and one man’s personal and professional identification with it. Tom Waits, unrecognisable from his other screen performances, plays a prospector who knows there is gold in them thar hills and is determined to find it. There isn’t a great deal more to the story than that apart from one significant interaction with another treasure hunter and one with an owl but it really showcases the sentiment from those lyrics in Oklahoma; ‘You know I belong to the land and the land I belong to is grand.’ Few Westerns have captured this idea better, especially not Oklahoma.
4. The Mortal Remains
The best part of The Hateful Eight was the extended conversations that took place in the stage coach as the disparate travellers headed toward their shared destination. This section of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs mirrors this part of Tarantino’s film quite closely as two bounty hunters, a trapper a lady and a Frenchman are forced to engage in conversation in the rattling confines of this classic horse drawn transport. Unlike the coach the narrative doesn’t really go anywhere but it is an interesting snapshot of this little group of genre stereotypes.
3. Near Algodones
James Franco features in this segment as a hapless bank robber who gets away with the crime he commits only to go down for one he didn’t. It is one of Franco’s best performances for a while, The Disaster Artist not withstanding, suiting his laid back, roguish and slightly self satisfied screen persona. The star of this story though is Stephen Roots bank teller who seems to relish every part of his job, including getting held up at gun point.
2. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
This is where I wanted those extra five minutes of Liam Neeson’s chapter to go. Tim Blake Nelson’s Buster Scruggs is such good company that I’d have happily spent hours watching his mix of polite manners, cheesy singing and deadly marksmanship. The Coens behind this short piece are the cheeky but crafted Coens of The Hudsucker Proxy and Raising Arizona and they are having a lot of fun. This said, it is this section where the film earns much of its 15 certificate with some quite graphic violence including the one of the greatest death scenes ever committed to celluloid (figuratively, this is the first Coen movie shot on digital).
1. The Gal Who Got Rattled
This is the only one of the tall tales told in this film that centres around a female character. Westerns are not known for pursuing feminist agendas but even aside of the movies that demonstrably aim to address this, films like Jane Got a Gun, The Quick and the Dead and Bad Girls, there are actually a number of strong women in the genre. I’m not just thinking of the tough ladies like Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again or Jane Russell in Outlaw either but the innocents rising to confront their circumstances like Katherine Ross in Butch and Sundance, Grace Kelly in High Noon and Hailee Steinfeld in the Coens’ own True Grit. This story homages these characters with Zoe Kazan playing a young woman stepping out of the shadow of her brother and playing with patriarchal rules to her own advantage. Then as her happiness seems assured the plot plays its final card.