The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

Most Westerns are set in the 19th century, at a time when the United States was aggressively expansionist within its continent, and settlers were pushing the boundaries of the territory towards the western coast. The Coen Brothers treat this history as fodder for a number of stories in this Netflix-originated anthology, some of which focus on the comic side of the genre, but others delve into something more primal.


Until I saw True Grit (2010), I didn’t have a particularly high opinion of the films of the Coen brothers. I know it seems heretical (and, sure, I found The Big Lebowski enjoyable), but I thought they were essentially charlatans and made arch, bitter films about people they considered themselves superior to — or so it seemed to me up until that point. There are parts of this anthology which I think hark back to that, so maybe the hardcore will be pleased; it’s a pretty thorough mixture of impish comic touches (Stephen Root prancing about shouting “pan shot!” is a highlight), character portraits (like Tom Waits’ solitary gold prospector), brutal violence and nastiness (the story with Liam Neeson particularly callously so). Pretty much every story ends up with one of the characters dying (not always the one you expect), and while some of them the film treats as pretty funny, others are laden with pathos. My favourite story is probably Zoe Kazan on the Oregon Trail (“The Gal Who Got Rattled”), and even if the way it ends does seem particularly indebted to a certain spirit of male-centred alienation, heartbreak and loss, it at least seems to be dealing with a character arc rather than a punchline.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (based partly on the novels All Gold Canyon by Jack London, and The Girl Who Got Rattled by Stewart Edward White); Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel; Starring Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Stephen Root, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Brendan Gleeson; Length 133 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 24 November 2018.

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

I’ve been on holiday for much of March, hence not posting so much, but I found the time to go and see the latest Coen brothers film twice in that time. Partly this is because since seeing their last film, Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), I’ve found something new to enjoy and celebrate in their work — an attitude not based on snide self-congratulatory archness, or so it feels to me (perhaps unfairly). However, I went to see it a second time also because the critical response — and my own initial reaction — feels so much like it misses the point of this latest work. Yes, the pacing seems initially quite odd — it has a slowly unfolding stiltedness that treads heavily somewhat like the prestige Hollywood pictures of the 1950s which it pastiches — and yes it’s a light and warm-hearted embrace of the era, but neither is surely a bad thing. In fact, it’s almost a release after the dour depression of Llewyn, but it’s not shallow. There’s a significant subplot that burrows into the contortions Hollywood found itself in during the McCarthy period, as his House Un-American Activities Committee investigated Communist sympathies within the industry. Even if leading man Baird (George Clooney) confronts a cabal of screenwriters (“The Future”), who have kidnapped him for possibly nefarious reasons, with a genial good humour, their presence is still given a voice, and not even a mocking one at that (Marxist theorist Herbert Marcuse pops up at one point). It also has a great line in fabulous supporting performances (Josh Brolin is the lead as studio boss Eddie), whether Tilda Swinton’s gossip columnist sisters, Channing Tatum’s Gene Kelly-like tap dancing showman, Ralph Fiennes’ director or, perhaps best of all, Alden Ehrenreich’s singing cowboy Hobie. It’s sweet, and for the Coens it’s played fairly straight, and it’s all the better for that.

Hail, Caesar! film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen; Cinematographer Roger Deakins; Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Tuesday 8 March 2016, and at Embassy, Wellington, Thursday 17 March 2016.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

The thing about Llewyn is, he’s a bit of dick, to put it plainly. Over the course of the film we come to have a little understanding about why this is, and the structure of the film even gives us a little chance to revisit that initial assessment at the end. He’s not a dick like Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street — he’s not hateful at a fundamental level — but he’s a man in need of some social graces. So, starting with a vaguely obnoxious character in an iconic American setting (Greenwich Village in the early-60s), the new Coen brothers movie has crafted a story of quite considerable pathos which has already attracted plenty of impassioned online essays, itself always a good sign.

As you may already know (or have guessed from the setting), this is a story based in the roots of the folk scene in the 1960s that gave us such figures as Bob Dylan, as well as plenty of others who’ve largely faded from view, of whom Llewyn is one (it’s been suggested he’s loosely based on Dave Van Ronk, a figure of that era). There’s a nostalgic glow (well, it’s some form of cultural nostalgia, not one I personally have) that comes from seeing those old LP covers, with their blocky text and frontal shots of a morose singer-songwriter, and the cinematography itself has a similar slightly-faded, soft-focused, battered charm. Llewyn was in a duo but now performs solo at a folk dive hangout, alongside crooning Irish barbershops and earnest Arkansas grandmothers. He has no great success, and his life is a shambles. He’s a connoisseur of people’s couches, and we see him settling into one for the first time, assessing its comfort level. He has a prickly relationship with June (Carey Mulligan), another folk singer who is already partnered up with well-meaning but earnestly dull sweater-wearing Jim (Justin Timberlake). And his label is a joke.

These are just the jumping off points, though. It’s a character study, as the film’s title suggests, and it’s one grounded in failure — I might even go so far as to say this film should take its place in the pantheon of great American films about failure (like the flipside of that far-too-often-evoked theme of ‘the American Dream’). Llewyn is resistant to the idea of everyday life; his folk music isn’t a protest against anything except settling down and working a steady job like his retired dad had in the merchant marines.

The songs aren’t just a period affectation, though. There’s a tremendous amount of generosity towards them, and most are featured in their entirety. The film starts and ends with Llewyn playing, and in between we get to hear a number of others, all presented largely uncut. It’s through the songs, for example, that we get a sense of Llewyn’s relationship with his departed musical partner (“Dink’s Song/Fare Thee Well”, especially when performed in the company of his older middle-class friends — or perhaps patrons, after a fashion, given the way they exhibit him to their learned friends each time he visits). It’s also through the songs he sings that we learn how he sees himself, and about his relationship with his father. Finally, they bring us back to that early-60s milieu: the only protest song we hear in the end is a quaint one addressed to President Kennedy, criticising the space race.

Around the songs is structured a heavily allusive narrative, which loops back in on itself, repeating and slightly reconfiguring some of the events. The story ends where it begins, with an encounter in a darkened alley. There’s the repetition of his living arrangements (couches to couches), and then there’s the cat who accompanies Llewyn on some of his travels, who has escaped from the flat of that middle-class couple where he was crashing at the beginning. It’s been seized upon by those essay writers as an integral element, which helps to elucidate some of what the film is about — although perhaps “elucidate” is the wrong word. Still, it seems freighted with meaning, starting with its peripatetic name: Ulysses, as much bringing to mind the Coen’s earlier film O Brother, Where Art Thou? as any classical allusion. It feels appropriate, then, that John Goodman should return, and the strangeness of the sequence he appears in — accompanying Llewyn in a car journey from New York to Chicago — as well as the singularity of his character feels of a piece with that earlier role as a Cyclops-like Bible salesman.

Indeed this ultimately is a mythical journey, in an almost-equally mythic American setting, that returns ultimately to failure. At least, so it seems for the title character. For the viewer, however, it’s as grand a success as any film the Coen brothers have crafted, and a reminder to doubters like myself that sometimes they can really get things right.

Inside Llewyn Davis film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen; Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel; Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 9 February 2014.