The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
Written & Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
Our movie opens on a simple song of the Old West warbled by the ever cheerful Buster Scruggs. Scruggs is an outlaw in a very peculiar vein, notorious and feared while exuding a Will Rogers type persona. This is one of six short stories told over the course of the movie, using the framing device of a book being acted out for the audience. Other stories focus on a bank robber experiencing a series of bad luck deals, traveling entertainers coming to the end of the line, a lone prospector’s discovery of the motherlode, a young woman in a wagon train headed westward for marriage, and a spooky stagecoach ride to Fort Morgan.
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The Sisters Brothers (2018)
Written by Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain
Directed by Jacques Audiard
Eli and Charlie Sisters are hitmen that work for the wealthy Commodore. Their most recent assignment is to catch up with Hermann Warm, a prospector headed west in search of gold. Eli isn’t sure why they are going after this seemingly innocuous man, but Charlie assures him that this is in their best interest. Detective John Morris has been hired as an advance man to tail Warm and leave word of his progress at stops along the way for the Brothers to pick up. As the Sisters brothers make their way across the rugged landscape, they encounter natural obstacles and growing interpersonal strife. Eli believes they can leave this life one day while Charlie seems resigned to be a killer forever.
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The Ballad of Lefty Brown (2017)
Written & Directed by Jared Moshe
Lefty Brown is a simple-minded ranchhand whose glory days are far behind him. He’s about to bid farewell to his longtime friend, Ed Johnson who has been elected senator of Montana. However, tragedy strikes and Ed will never make it to D.C. Old friends Tom Harrah and Governor Jame Bierce arrive to comfort Ed’s widow while his affairs are put in order. Lefty takes off to hunt down the killers and is joined by Tom who is trying to bring the old man back home. Instead, they pick up a young kid enamored with the mythology of the West, and whom quickly learns the stories he has heard are not as fantastic and pretty as he thinks. A conspiracy is uncovered behind Ed’s murder that connects to his election as a senator and leaves Lefty as a suspect fighting to redeem his name and avenge his friend.
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Slow West (2015)
Written & Directed by John Maclean
Young Jay Cavendish has traveled from Scotland to America in pursuit of his one true love Rose Ross. Rose and her father fled their home after a crime was committed. Jay crosses paths with Silas Selleck, a bounty hunter who appears to take a fondness to the naive and earnest younger man. They begin a trek across the West to find Rose and encounter other travelers along the way. Following them are a band of fellow bounty hunters who want to catch Jay for their purposes. The journey is a quiet one with short bursts of violence, like a strange dream.
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Bone Tomahawk (2015)
Written & Directed by S. Craig Zahler
A strange drifter finds his way into the small town of Bright Hope. He arrival is followed by the murder of a stable boy and the abduction of two citizens. All that is left behind is an arrow with a head made from bone. A local native explains this belongs to a tribe of men who are not “Indians” but from some other breed of man. Sheriff Hunt takes off with a trio of men, each with their own reason to follow the trail, to rescue their fellow townspeople. They encounter the hazards of the wilderness along the way not knowing that an ancient horror awaits them in the Valley of the Starving Man.
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The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western by Richard Brautigan (1974)
Since college, I have developed a greater appreciation of the Western genre in film and literature. In particular, I enjoy the modern deconstructions of the genre (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Once Upon a Time in America, Blood Meridian, etc.). I had never felt inclined to pick up anything by Richard Brautigan, having foolishly discounted him as a post-hippie literary author. While the novel is strongly post-modern and experimental, its also a pretty straightforward Western. Because there’s that rich layer underneath of deconstruction it makes the main story that much more interesting.
The plot is very light and concerns two guns for hire, Cameron and Greer, who are enthralled by a mysterious Native American girl, Magic Child whom leads them back to her family home in the Great Plains. There, they meet Mrs. Hawkline, the owner of the house and some strange blurring of identity occurs between Magic Child and Hawkline. The two gunmen are also told they are being hired to kill an unseen monster that lives in the ice caves that run underneath the house. All the while, Brautigan refers to a presence that moves through the house unseen.
The story is a fantasy that is concerned with the idea of doubles. There are characters that act as doubles and conversations routinely repeat, with characters entranced and unaware. The result is that our protagonists feel as though they are not progressing through the story. The expedition into the ice caves is constantly on the precipice of happening, but there is always a coincidental distraction that pulls them away. The result is an intentional frustration in the reader that ultimately pays off with the unconventional epilogue. This is not a novel for a casual reader, but for someone who wants an intellectual challenge.
True Grit (2010, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)
Starring Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper
I’ve never seen the original True Grit, mainly because I am not such a big fan of John Wayne. I’ve only seen two films of his (The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance). I totally get Wayne as an icon, but as an actor he seemed a little weak. So I entered the remake of True Grit with no expectations and found it to be a great western and adventure story, with enough subtext to keep me thinking for a long time. Despite advertisements, this is Hailee Steinfeld’s film. The other actors are there to support her and she does a magnificent job keeping up with the likes of Bridges and Damon.
Mattie Ross (Steinfeld) is the 14 year old daughter of a man shot in cold blood by Tom Cheney (Brolin), a dim witted scoundrel. Mattie travels to the location of her father’s body under the pretense of preparing it to be sent back home, but is actually out to find a hired gun to help her track down and murder Cheney. She happens upon the grizzled federal marshal Rooster Cogburn (Bridges), a man who shoots first and asks questions later. After some convincing, he agrees to take Mattie into Choctaw territory where Cheney ran off to. Before they can depart, Texas ranger Le Boeuf (Damon) who is looking for Cheney in relation to his murder of a Texas state senator. The trio bickers and bonds as they draw closer to their prey, which in the end will test each of their resolves.
The Coens are employing their strongest tactics in this film: dialogue and character. The language of the characters is so precise and specific, and this is how they have created countless memorable and iconic characters. True Grit is a showcase for the complex figure of Mattie Ross, whom could easily become a “girl power” anachronism. Instead, through well placed pieces of dialogue, we learn about Mattie’s role in her home and the extra responsibility she has been strapped with. She is both courageous and vulnerable in a way many female characters in film rarely are. Beyond Mattie, the central and side characters all have unspoken histories that we catch glimpses of. As she and Rooster travel the wilderness they encounter characters who may have a line or two (or none at all) and are fully realized figures in this world. The Coens succeed in producing another film chock full of those things that cause the brains of film geeks like myself to salivate.