Posted in: by Robert Horton, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Too bad the title of the new multi-story Coen brothers film is taken from the first of its episodes. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has the ring of a cartoon spoof, and it’s a perfectly suitable title for the film’s first segment, a Western sendup so broad it reminds us that every Coen brothers film has a little Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner spinning around inside it.

But this movie, taken as a whole, is no spoof, nor a cartoon. Its first two sections are very funny, but gradually the project moves from comedy into something else, something kind of amazing. Exquisitely crafted and relentlessly bleak, Buster Scruggs is a glorious wagon train of dark mischief, a strangely entertaining autopsy on the human condition. Like Joel and Ethan Coen’s Burn After Reading, it pretends to be silly while it slips you the needle.

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Posted in: Essays

Black Arts

[originally published in Film Comment Volume 31, Number 5, September/October 1995]

Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 genre-juicing vampire film Near Dark opens close up on a leggy mosquito poised to tap into screen-spanning flesh. Apt epigraph for a film about heartland bloodsuckers; but also your ticket into any of the intensely sensual, romantically nihilistic excursion – The Loveless, Blue Steel, Point Break, and now Strange Days – head-tripped by this dark daughter of Hawks and Hitchcock. Bigelow’s movies gauge psyches and society in extremis, running on empty. Her nomadic protagonists, “riders” of one stripe or another, hooked on whatever “zap” best fuels them, cruise the nervous systems of her often hyperreal “outside” – unspooling ribbons of baked macadam, rain- and neon-slicked streets, granite-gray arches of breaking surf, even brightly surging brainwaves – trying to stay ahead of their own shadows.

A jerry-rigged Bigelow family in "Near Dark"
A jerry-rigged Bigelow family in “Near Dark”

Latterday kin to Hawks’s daredevil existentialists, Bigelow folk all hanker after heartstopping action and spectacle, the sort of “speed” that punches life up to top gear and outruns terminal ennui. Hanging out on the edge of the world, emotionally and in the flesh, these are orphans to the bone – loners, outlaws, pariahs. Plugged into jerry-rigged “families” for dangerous shelter, their rage and despair often explode into demonic self-projections.

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