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Coens Bring Originality to the Wild West

Illustration by Clara Hollowgrass

The Coen brothers dish out another quality film chock-full of their trademark dark humor and poignant themes in this new release. Releasing an anthology of six short films that take place in the Wild West, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs which swerves from satirical, to sad, to philosophical, leaving me a little jumbled after watching it. Though at times slow or uncomfortable, overall there was enough fascinating material to make this movie worthwhile.

The first short was my least favorite of the six. It follows the well spoken outlaw Buster Scruggs as he slings guns and makes witty jabs in a silly parody of an old western, complete with three musical numbers and tons of violence. It seemed more like a wacky idea that the Coen brothers wanted to see played out on screen  than an actually worthwhile piece of work. Despite lacking any real structure or meaning, it had its own charm.

Near Algodones, also a comedy, depicts the exploits of a young cowboy as he evades arrest and execution. While also rather pointless, its off kilter humor and originality makes it a solid addition to the overall anthology. No matter their faults, you can always count on the Coens to bring you something completely new and inventive. All of the short films had an original element.

In Meal Ticket, an old man runs a traveling show in which Harrison, a young man with no arms or legs, recites classics such as Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. This vignette was the most unique out of the six, telling a crushingly bleak story about cruelty and greed. Nearly every scene is still, silent, and excruciatingly uncomfortable. Despite its mysterious, intriguing aesthetic, it’s detached, parabolic tone left me feeling dull and unmoved.

All Gold Canyon details a hardy old miners search for wealth as he pans for weeks in a riverbed, looking for the source of the gold. Where the other shorts were lukewarm, this one was extremely heartfelt. Each short, and really everything written by the Coens, is supposed to represent some larger metaphor, but their work is the best when it can also be enjoyed on a more base level, such as a good story about characters that you care about.

The Gal Who Got Rattled is a tragic tale reminiscent of Fargo and The Big Lebowski in that it shows an average person’s life get turned upside down by a chain of mishaps. Gentle Alice Longabaugh is traveling in a wagon train to Oregon when things go awry, and the kind Mr. Billy Knapp attempts to aid her. While it develops as a wholesome love story, I waited for some kind of sick twist. This short was well made and touching, but ultimately ended with the same vague, nihilistic air as in No Country for Old Men.

The Mortal Remains was my favorite out of the whole anthology. An Englishman, an Irishman, a Frenchman, a trapper, and a lady ride to a place called Fort Morgan in a stagecoach. While I criticized Meal Ticket for being too parabolic, this short reveals itself to be an all out parable, in which each character symbolizes a different way of thinking. Nothing about this story is real, with everything being an emblem for something else. This highly philosophical piece was a great way to close out a mixed bag of shorts.

However thought provoking, this movie still left me feeling rather cold. The Coen brothers’ main focus as screenwriters isn’t to write a great story, but to get a specific theme across to the audience. Because of this, their stories are extremely contrived, clearly orchestrated to convey a certain message. There’s nothing relatable or authentic about them. Their work is quite unrealistic. Instead of presenting likely situations, their plot lines are far fetched and sardonic, with only the films abstract concepts speaking to human nature. There’s much to take from their works, but emotion is nowhere to be found. This movie displayed the genius that we’ve come to expect from the Coens, but didn’t show that they’ve evolved their craft.