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.
The underlying subject of many romantic comedies is chemistry, the mysterious rapport that draws people together despite whatever circumstances—being already married, having different sexual orientations—might be working against them. It’s a tough thing to simulate in movies because, well, that’s the nature of chemistry. So What If has a sizable gift in the casting of Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan, who either have terrific chemistry together or are able to fake it expertly.
In the opening scene, their characters, Wallace and Chantry, bond over refrigerator magnets at a party and he walks her home. She mentions her boyfriend at the usual moment for such things, and that becomes the major impediment to a quick resolution of this mutual-attraction club.
Kelly Reichert’s Meek’s Cutoff (Oscilloscope) opens without preamble. We are given a place and a year —”Oregon, 1845,” stitched into a piece of homespun embroidery—and then dropped in the high desert to observe three frontier families ford a river. They wordlessly, almost morosely, march across, then take the opportunity to fill canteens, wash and check the wagons before setting off again. These pilgrims in the desert are a long way from the Promised Land and their buckskin guide of a Moses, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood, looking like a road show Buffalo Bill), talks a good story of frontier adventure but it’s clear to the three families of the tiny wagon train that his shortcut to the Willamette Valley has them lost in the desert.
Michelle Williams stars as Emily, the young wife of Soloman (Will Patton), an older man looking to start again in the new land, and while she is duly deferential in public, in private they share a healthy honesty in communication you suspect is absent in the other tents. One wife (Shirley Henderson) is pregnant and exhausted — they walk beside the wagons, not in them — and another (Zoe Kazan) on the verge of hysteria. But quietly. Always quietly.
This is the quietest American film I’ve heard in years. Apart from the tall tales spun by Meek, the dialogue is hushed and the audience strains to hear the discussions of the men debating their options. Much like the wives, who are left out of the discussions and stand apart, patiently picking up what they can. The soundtrack is creaking wagons, the wind through plains, the sounds of setting and breaking camp. Until The Indian, a lone figure shadowing them on their journey, is first spotted. He brings the music with him but it’s a lonely, alienated soundscape, mood rather than melody. Meek assumes he’s a threat, but not due to any native intelligence on his part. Forget the mountain man as frontier seer and survivalist savant. Meek can’t place the man’s tribe or language any more than he can find their trail. Emily’s defiant stand to protect The Indian (that’s his name, as far as any of the settlers are concerned; there’s certainly no communication between them) is as much practical as humanistic. If Meek can’t find water, then maybe this desert dweller can. If only out of self-preservation, as he’s tied—quite literally—to their fortunes.
Vanessa Redgrave was a controversial choice to play the French nightclub singer in Auschwitz (this was a few years after her notorious pro-PLO speech at the Oscars) but her performance is a triumph of dignity and desperation, strength and weakness, resolve and guilt, as she sings for her survival as a member of a makeshift women’s orchestra made up of prisoners. The scene where Fania is brought in from the barracks to “audition” for the orchestra with a song from “Madame Butterfly” presents the simple but profound contradictions that run through the entire film. Weak and frail from the work details and starvation rations, Fania tentatively picks out the melody on a grand piano glaringly out of place in this anonymous building filled with reflexively obedient women. As her voice comes in clear and full of ache and emotion, their heads (all instinctively lowered, so as not to make eye contact with the German officer in the room) slowly rise, and their eyes open, awestruck and moved beyond their expectations by this beauty cutting through the horror of their circumstances for a brief moment.