Six tales of good and bad luck in the old West
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring Tim Blake Nelson, Tom Waits, and Zoe Kazan
Initial Review by Jon Kissel
I picture Joel and Ethan Coen writing their scripts in their office and laughing at each other about how their films will be interpreted. Maybe they think about all the ink that will be spilled by critics and film journalists wondering why the Mike Yanagita scene is in Fargo or what the true role of John Goodman is in Barton Fink, and chuckle that they don’t actually put these mysteries in their films for any purpose other than the mystery itself. Much like several of their films, there is actually no meaning to be discerned. The Coens love coincidence with no rationale behind it and the capriciousness of an impassive and unknowable prime mover, themes that film writers aren’t big fans of because there isn’t much to write about when that is the case. The reviewer looking for answers asks ‘why did that happen’ and the Coens reply ‘why ask why?’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs appears to be exactly as cosmically retributive as much of the Coens’ earlier work, with that prime mover watching from above and snatching goodness away from the characters’ grasps. Though each of the six stories feature bloody ends, this is actually something of an outlier for the duo, in that it’s obliquely beautiful in its own specific way. Joel and Ethan remain as fatalistic as ever, but nothing is so simple as the point A of birth and the point B of death. There are songs to sung and moments to be shared along the way.
Classic production code films are always hard to evaluate. It’s possible the viewer has seen dozens of iterations and imitators without knowing it, robbing the classic of any originality it would’ve had at its premiere. The workarounds required by morality censors give writers and directors hurdles that don’t improve their films thanks to an extra degree of difficulty. These kinds of films have a cadence all their own, a stilted way of speaking that can be hard to ignore. Subtlety seems to be a thing that doesn’t get introduced to American cinema til the incorporation of Italian neo-realism and the looming French New Wave. I don’t feel like I’m too far out on a limb when I say that Hollywood film was an art form with plenty of room to run in the early 50’s. The film that gets me thinking about mid-century movies is High Noon, the Western as anti-McCarthy parable. It has all the aforementioned crutches that keep it from my rating it as a great film, though I can admire it as something with a perspective and a legacy.
Kevin Costner’s Western Dances With Wolves is a film we’re watching because of its culture clash narrative, but it could’ve fit into a category that was raised on a recent podcast: films that need a reevaluation. The film nerd expectation on this one is tied in with its Best Picture win over the vastly-superior Goodfellas, another example of Oscar voters going for safe over daring or challenging. It’s also got a decidedly non-PC reputation as a white savior, noble savage exemplar. However, where we mentioned on the podcast a movie like 300 getting a downward reevaluation, Dances With Wolves conceivably deserves one in the opposite direction. As far as white saviors go, John Dunbar is nowhere near the most egregious example, and it’s never the winning film’s fault when a more deserving film is passed over for awards. Much of Dances With Wolves is just as moving and enthralling as it was before I knew a movie like Goodfellas existed. It’s hardly perfect, but Costner’s epic is undeserving of the turned-up nose in its direction.
Remakes immediately make a certain portion of the film-going population cringe. The popular refrain of ‘X ruined my childhood’ booms out whenever some hit is rebranded, whether the update is gender-swapped (Ghostbusters), CGI-stuffed (Clash of the Titans), or unnecessary (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). Remakes occasionally reach for greatness (The Fly, True Grit, The Departed, Let Me In), but they’re often cynical cash-grabs from creatively bankrupt studios, which brings us to Antoine Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven. I’ve seen the 1960 John Sturges version, and though it’s a fine and competent classic Western, I merely admired it. While some misogynist nerds might claim that Melissa McCarthy made the original Ghostbusters worse somehow, I take the opposite tack on the two Magnificent Sevens. The Fuqua version, with all its hamfisted writing and amateurish directing and general pointlessness, improves the Sturges version. Seeing a straightforward story told badly reminds one of the value of basic competence.
I wasn’t allowed to watch violent movies as a kid. The first ultra violent movie I remember watching was “Natural Born Killers” in the early ‘90’s and I had to sneak around and watch it when my parents were out. I think it took two weeks to get through the whole thing. I also wasn’t allowed to play “Mortal Kombat” when it came out. I had to sneak over to a friend’s house to play it. My parents weren’t Puritans, necessarily, but they were pacifists, I guess. Guns and knives and generally violent play were discouraged or looked down upon.
JUST SOME IDIOTS GIVING SURPRISINGLY AVERAGE MOVIE REVIEWS.