The Western! That most American of genres. From the classic westerns of John Ford to the Spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, to the revisionist western, the acid western – it’s a genre that artists of vastly different sensibilities can adapt to their own purposes. Now Joel and Ethan Coen have made their own take on the genre, and it’s a strange, often beautiful film. Superior, I think, to their earlier western, True Grit. That film wore the burden of its movie history heavily; Buster Scruggs is light and nimble, finding new uses for the genre almost without trying. For starters: this is an anthology film, made of six different stories of the Old West, each one introduced by the flipping pages of an old-timey storybook, of the kind that surely played a role in the Coens’ 1950s childhood. There’s dark humour and grim violence, as when Tim Blake Nelson plays the title character, a cheerful, sadistic gunslinger who shoots up saloons before leading everyone in a song. Perhaps more surprisingly for the Coens’, other stories are deeply poignant and sad. “Meal Ticket,” a story starring Liam Neeson as a sideshow impresario, is profoundly moving, feeling like an ancient story that has been repressed for years in the cultural unconscious till it was finally told. A story about the Oregon trail is sure to draw a knowing laugh from anyone who played the computer game in elementary school, but what begins as a story of love swerves into the tragic following a crucial misunderstanding. Perhaps what’s most striking in all the stories is just how old the Old West feels, as distant from the present as Ancient Rome or the Crusades. Call this latest entry into the genre the deep western, where the theme is not just history, but time, in a metaphysical sense.
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