One-line review: A National Geographic edition on the Wild West’s Coenesque inhabitants.  

The Ballad is an anthology of six short films in the Western tradition that the Coens wrote separately over the years. In fact, Tim Blake Nelson (Buster Scruggs) got the script in the early 2000s. But he didn’t know when and whether the film would be made, because which major studio would finance a project with him in the lead? But the Coens made it happen eventually, as always. Much has been made about the unifying theme of death across these stories, but the anthology is about our shared human condition. However, a brutal sense of Western justice underlies all the stories, which might sometimes mean dispensing death. Nature is the real common thread, stark, beautiful, and stoic, as the human minions weave in and out. Another common thread across the stories is the stellar cast.

Each story unfolds as a color plate in an old book. We also see some snatches of the written text at each story’s beginning and end. A couple of these seemingly innocuous lines in one of the stories (The Grand Canyon) were most profound to me both philosophically. More on that when discussing the story. 

Buster Scruggs: The first story is about the singing cowboy and famed marksman wanted for misanthropy. But up close, Buster Scruggs is amicable, classy, and fair; he never starts a fight. He and his trusted horse Dan have been on many adventures, and Scruggs always has a gunfight and a song bubbling beneath the surface. However, Buster Scruggs eventually meets his match and gracefully acknowledges (in song) that he cannot always be the best. Blake Nelson plays the swashbuckling Buster with such swagger and empathy; it is not surprising that fans are clamoring for a standalone Buster Scruggs movie. Trust the Coens to know decades back that Nelson would be the best choice for the lead.        

Near Algodones: We move on from the high-octane Scruggs to the easy-going bank-robbing cowboy (a superb James Franco, one of the few stars in the film). This story is about a bank robbery gone wrong thanks to a wily bank clerk (the ever-dependable Stephen Root), the sole employee in the middle of nowhere bank. The clerk outwits the robber with his ingenious methods, no doubt honed by years of warding off such robberies. The rest of the film is about the vagaries of justice; you win and lose some, often in a matter of seconds. One of the memorable visuals in the film is Franco on horseback with a noose around his neck, the other end tied to a tree. As his horse moves ahead to eat grass, he must adjust his position to avoid being hung, and Franco goes from vertical to horizontal like a clock’s arm. This short also boasts of one of the best punchlines in the film. Franco is the perfect fit to play a brooding, naive cowboy who is charming even in the face of death. 

Meal ticket: We see how the harsh winters and the daily struggle to survive hardens hearts. Aging impresario (Liam Neeson) is dealing with the steady decline of the popularity of his artist, the limbless Harrison, also known as the wingless thrush. Harrison (Harry Melling) is an adept orator but can no longer bring in the crowds from the countryside, who at most come out of curiosity. Some of his speeches are repeated to show us how even great oratory can be tedious. It is only a matter of time before a counting chicken upstages him. The impresario needs his meal ticket and must make some tough choices in the harsh west. Neeson is excellent, going from amicable to mean as his circumstances change. Melling’s wide-eyed performance is perfect for his role as a disabled man at his boss’ mercy and his need to earn his keep or perish. 

All Gold Canyon: Tom Waits singularly keeps us transfixed in this piece, amply aided by the breathtaking pristine landscapes around him. One of the early and solitary prospectors, the grizzly old man, has a steely resolve. He digs all day without any luck but knows he will eventually find Mr. Pocket (gold). But when he finds gold, an interloper appears, threatening to usurp his hard-earned find. This story is the only one in the anthology where justice is straightforward, probably because the story is a direct Jack London adaptation. Although we root for the old man, there is no denying that he is the forefather of big corporations mercilessly looting the earth and leaving behind a trail of destruction. The Coens echo this sentiment in the powerful last shot where the trail of digs mars the virgin landscape. The story’s final line reads, “only remained the hoof marks in the meadow and the torn hillside to mark the boisterous trail that had broken the peace of the place and passed on.”   

The Girl Who Got Rattled: This heartbreaking story makes you question the Coens’ sense of lopsided justice; that is how invested you become in the characters. The story follows a caravan and the unlikely courtship between a flighty Alice (a superb Zoe Kazan who plays her so delicately) and Billy Knap (played by Bill Heck with a lingering innocence), one of the leaders of the wagon. Unfortunately, fate and Indians have other plans as a pact between Alice and the other leader, Arthur (a stoically effective Grainger Haines). As the longest story in the anthology, it is the most fleshed out with pitch-perfect performances from everyone, including the annoying dog, President Pierce.

The Mortal Remains: This last story ties everything together with some profound reflections on death through dialogue and song. This story is the pinnacle of the Coens’ casting. Six top-notch character actors with the most interesting faces are thrown together in a coach delivering lines that oscillate between profound and ridiculous. The six passengers include two bounty hunters, Thigpen (a superbly exuberant Jonjo O Niel) and his partner Clarence (Brenden Gleeson, whose song moves you to tears, yet he is a merciless thumper). There is also the tedious trapper (Chelcie Ross puts the T in tedious and has some of the unintentionally funniest lines), the French man (Saul Rubinek plays him with the perfect level of annoyance), and the sole lady (Tyne Daly). Daly’s performance is a master class in using facial expressions. The eerie sense of dread at the end of the story makes it a befitting conclusion to the anthology.  

Why watch it? For the glorious storytelling, performances, and the landscape.        

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