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Non-Review Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is not so much a set of stories about the Old West, more a set of stories about the stories that are told about the Old West.

To be fair, the anthology film wears this premise on its sleeve. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is by its nature an omnibus of short stories, drawing its audience’s attention to the format through the framing device of an anonymous hand leafing gently through an old hardcover book of short stories. Even within the individual stories, the Coen Brothers frequently nest smaller and more intricate narratives; whether stories shared at dinner, great works recited for an enchanted audience, or even just strangers in a stage coach making awkward conversation with one another.

The rifle man.

In the film’s final segment, The Mortal Remains, the self-described “distractor” Thigpen explains that he distracts his quarry through stories. “People can’t get enough of them,” he assures his audience. “Because people connect the stories to themselves, I suppose. And we all love hearing about ourselves. So long as the people in the stories are us… but not us.” In its own weird way, positioned at the tail end of the narrative, Thigpen seems to offer something of a thesis statement for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a story about stories. In particular, a story about certain types of stories.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is decidedly uneven, as anthology films tend to be. That said, the quality is high enough (and the stories disparate enough) that it’s easy to imagine that each story of the six might be someone‘s favourite. The Coen Brothers very cannily and very astutely ensure a great variety in tone across the six installments, which range from gleefully nihilistic, to sombre and withdrawn, to eerie and uncanny. However, they are connected by a series of recurring preoccupations about life of the frontier and man’s awkward relationship to both that wilderness and his fellow man.

No need to make a song and dance about it.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is not consistent enough to rank among the Coens’ best work. While the movie maintains a consistent perspective and philosophical vantage point across its two-hour-and-ten-minute runtime, the individual stories vary so wildly in terms of aesthetic and rhythm that the film never quite coheres as well as it might. At the same time, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs contains enough delightful details in its smaller moments that linger, suggesting that the film might best be remembered as a collection of inspired moments rather than as a satisfying whole.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is not so much a ballad as a concept album.

Don’t leave him hanging.

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Non-Review Review: Hold the Dark

“Do you have any idea what’s outside these windows? How black it gets?”

An enlightening piece of work.

In the American consciousness, the frontier is a haunted place.

In some ways, it is a concept distinct to the United States, at least in contrast to Europe. The boundaries within Europe were established centuries ago; although they might shift and bend, the contours of the continent have been known to the people who inhabited it for millennia. In contrast, to the settlers who arrived from Europe, the North American frontier was a mystery and an enigma. The frontier is distinct a border space. A border implies a point of collision that might be crossed, the neatly delineated boundary between one place and another.

Let Bisons be Bisons.

The frontier is something entirely different. It represents the edge of reason, and limit of what is knowable. To reach the end of the frontier is to reach the end of “the West.” In geographical terms, off the western shore of the North American continent lies “the East.” In more abstract terms, the American frontier is an imaginary space rather than a literal one. After all, Jeremy Saulnier’s previous film – Green Room – suggested that the frontier could be found somewhere  surprisingly close to urbanity, only a few hours away from the familiar comforts of Portland.

Hold the Dark takes place in a decidedly more remote environment, against the snow backdrops of Alaska. Saulnier goes to great lengths to illustrate the isolation of that environment, paying particular attention to how long it takes Russell Core to reach the small Alaskan town that serves as the starting point of the story before venturing out into the real wilderness. At another point, Vernon Slone stops by an old hostel on his travels. Asked for his point of origin, he’s informed that there was no road connecting the two places. “Not directly,” he clarifies.

Shedding some light on the matter.

As with the snow-covered western wilderness in Wind River, there is a sense that Hold the Dark unfolds against the very limit of the American frontier, at the point where the continent has ceased to provide for the settlers and instead has become something harsh and unforgiving. It is a place that has been settled by humans, but is perhaps untouched by humanity. If Green Room allowed Saulnier to explore the vipers coiled underneath familiar rocks, then Hold the Dark is a story about the animals that hunt at the very edge of civilisation.

Green Room was effectively a cynical and grim take on the familiar horror plot that warned of the dangers lurking off the backroads, just out of sight. Hold the Dark is the story of a hunt for a dangerous predator in a harsh environment. In both films, the monster looks very familiar.

Mask appeal.

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Non-Review Review: Wind River

Taylor Sheridan’s loose “Frontier trilogy” imagines the frontier as the site of America’s original sin.

Like Sicario and Hell or High WaterWind River is set in what might be considered a modern-day equivalent of the “wild west.” It is a harsh and brutal world, one in which people fight a losing battle to make sense of that violence. Sicario imagined the frontier as Mexico, a tale of lawless retribution set against the backdrop of the already-lost War on Drugs. Hell or High Water imagined that frontier in Texas, a modern tale of bank robberies and land grabs. Wind River pushes that frontier to vast frozen surroundings of Wyoming, putting Native Americans in focus.

In the wild white yonder…

As the trilogy has moved North, it has also shifted tones. Sicario was confused and angry, struggling to explain the horrors that were unfolding. Hell or High Water blended that anger with a sense of wistful nostalgia, reflecting on the tragic irony of manifest destiny eroded by late capitalism. Wind River is just profoundly sad, a meditation on loss that seems more exhausted than angry. It is a tale about those people left behind on what remains of the frontier, about violence that is too easily overlooked and ignored. There is no rage here, no passion. There is just fatigue.

Wind River is a western set in the forgotten part of the west. It is a western set in the snow, on a Native American reservation. It is the story of a frontier that is too readily forgotten.

In cold blood.

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Non-Review Review: The Revenant

The Revenant is a beautiful and visceral piece of work.

Sporting a troubled production history, The Revenant is surprisingly straightforward film. Based on the tale of famed fur trapper (and tall-tale-teller) Hugh Glass, The Revenant charts one man’s journey from near-death back to civilisation against the harsh and unforgiving American wilderness. The Revenant is essentially a journey in a straight line, as Glass struggles to find a way back to security and revenge himself upon his colleagues who left him for dead. The film’s biggest structural issues lie in a desire to distort or convolute that straight line.

therevenant6

However, the fairly linear and straightforward plot is really just a framework for director Alejandro G. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to present the audience with striking vistas and symbolism that ranges from blindingly obvious to wilfully obtuse. The film is absolutely stunning, capturing its tone perfectly and presenting any number of memorable images and moments. Even when the visual trips sideways or backwards feel indulgent or unnecessary, they are still beautiful.

The Revenant is perhaps a little too fixated on over-complicating what is a fairly straightforward narrative, with a script that can seem unexpectedly obtuse for what is basically a single long chase movie crossed with a classic “man against nature” survival film. Nevertheless, the result is a striking piece of work that is awe-inspiring in visual (and visceral) terms.

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Star Trek: Enterprise – The Catwalk (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This April, we’re doing the second season. Check back daily for the latest review.

The Catwalk is a solid, if unexceptional, piece of Star Trek.

Given the problems that the second season of Star Trek: Enterprise has been having to date, it feels like a breath of fresh air. As with a lot of the episodes around it, The Catwalk feels a little familiar. There are refugees with a secret; an alien take-over of the ship; a clever bluff to reclaim the ship from a position of weakness. If we are looking at The Catwalk in the “… by way of …” formula that seems to apply to most of this stretch of the second season, The Catwalk is “Starship Mine by way of Basics.”

"Right, right! Goddammit, Trip, now we'll never get the high score!"

“Right, right! Goddammit, Trip, now we’ll never get the high score!”

However, The Catwalk feels a lot more functional than many of the earlier episodes in the season. A large part of that is down to the way that writers Mike Sussman and Phylis Strong play to their strengths. The inevitable alien hijacking and threat is relegated to the background; The Catwalk is almost half over by the time that anything actually happens. While the episode’s pacing is a little uneven, it does allow Sussman and Strong a bit of room to explore the characters, building up the sense that the crew is something of a family unit.

While The Catwalk isn’t innovative or particularly adventurous, it works quite well. The idea of pushing the whole crew into a confined space and having them weather the storm together feels like it captures a lot of the pioneering sense of adventure that the show has allowed to fade over the second season.

Don't forget to turn out the light...

Don’t forget to turn out the light…

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Millennium – The Wild and the Innocent (Review)

This February and March, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fourth season of The X-Files and the first season of Millennium.

The Wild and the Innocent is an ambitious piece of television.

It is not a piece of television that works as well as it might, the execution of the central ideas leaving a little to be desired, but it is an episode that commits whole heartedly to something unique. In I Want to Believe, Robert Shearman refers to The Wild and the Innocent as “a plot more suited to Cormac McCarthy than Chris Carter.” He’s not wrong. The Wild and the Innocent is a story about cycles of violence and abuse in the American south, a grim road movie with some very harsh conclusions about the way that the world works.

That sinking feeling...

That sinking feeling…

It still fits within the milieu of Millennium. After all the classic “serial killer road movie” is still a serial killer story, and Millennium has already carved out that niche for itself. However, the image of Frank Black and Peter Watts following a trail of bodies from Missouri down through Arkansas suggests a different show than the one that has been airing since The Pilot. In many respects – with its heavy philosophical voice-over, its country-tinged soundtrack, its fixation on the outlaw couple – The Wild and the Innocent feels almost like some old American folk tale.

There’s something decidedly old-fashioned here, with the episode playing more like a western than a police procedural. In the documentary Order in Chaos, Carter described Frank Black as character from a story “like Shane, like any cowboy, any good movie, Western movie.” As such, he fits in quite comfortably with this new type of story.

Road warrior...

Road warrior…

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