I've only seen snippets of Seth McFarlane's 2014 movie, A Million Ways to Die in the West, but the title says everything you need to know about the corpse-strewn fatalism of Western stories over the past half-century. Throughout that time, the dominant voices in that genre have been Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, and Annie Proulx, none of whom ever met a character they couldn't slaughter in the bloodiest ways possible. Filmmakers beginning with Sam Peckinpah exploited this new, sanguinary freedom. The Wild Bunch heralded the transition in Western movies from heroic to lethal, and so it has been ever since.
Three recent films—including one by the Coen Brothers, who adapted McCarthy's No Country for Old Men into a multiple Oscar winner—depict characters on the Western frontier (and its nearest equivalent, the Australian Outback) who fight losing battles with Fate. I will consider them in ascending order of gore.
Director Kelly Reichardt and her writing partner, Jon Raymond, specialize in lowkey, low-budget movies in which their protagonists gradually see their hopes and dreams come to nothing. Many of them are set in Oregon (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy) or involve 19th-century pioneers on the way to Oregon (Meek's Crossing). Their latest film, First Cow—based on Raymond's novel, The Half-Life—involves two down-and-outers who commit minor acts of larceny to achieve their dreams, only to pay a price far out of proportion to their crimes.
First Cow begins with a modern-day woman (Alia Shawkat) walking her dog along the Columbia River who stumbles across two skeletons. The movie then shifts to the 1820s, when the only white settlers in Oregon were trappers and tradesmen seeking what a character known only as the Chief Factor (Toby Jones) calls "soft gold"—beaver pelts in high demand to make hats for fashionable gentlemen.
Otis "Cookie" Figowitz (John Magaro), cook for a group of trappers, makes the acquaintance of King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese drifter on the run from vengeful Russians. They quickly become friends and soon are sharing a cabin.
Cookie and King-Lu note the arrival in the settlement of the titular cow, property of the Chief Factor. Cookie laments how much money he could earn if he only had the milk to make cookies and biscuits to sell in the settlement. King-Lu—who has long lived by his wits—proposes that they surreptitiously milk the cow at night. Cookie agrees, and soon he and King-Lu are making big money selling biscuits and fried cakes to trappers hungry for something other than beans and salmon. Cookie and King-Lu plan to continue just long enough to afford passage to San Francisco, there to open a hotel.
Cookie's skills bring him to the attention of the Chief Factor, who asks him to provide a blueberry clafoutis for a party he's planning. The Chief Factor, as King-Lu notes, is a fool; he does not realize Cookie's pastries require milk, and wonders aloud why his cow yields so little. However, the Chief Factor regards himself as an expert on the proper punishment of thieves, and in due time gets to put his theories to use.
First Cow, like Reichardt's previous films, is a slight but haunting story about how even the simplest plans gang aft agley. Those who have seen Old Joy or Wendy and Lucy know what to expect: a slow, almost stately pace; beautiful photography (in this case by Christopher Blauvelt) and music (by William Tyler); action that is more often implied than explicit; and dialogue and performances of great nuance and depth.
It's no surprise that The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, being a Coen Brothers film, dials up the mayhem from First Cow. A six-episode anthology Western, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs approaches the genre with a wry grimace, more in the mode of Fargo than No Country for Old Men.
The title episode, which begins the movie, is the jokiest. Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) is a singing outlaw riding through Monument Valley who addresses viewers directly. "A song never fails to ease my mind out here in the West, where the distances are great and the scenery monotonous," he tells them.
Arriving at the nearest saloon, Buster proves himself a virtuoso of outlawry, as effective in killing his foes without a gun as with one. (To tell you more would be to spoil the sight gags, which match Blazing Saddles in hilarity while far exceeding it in menace.) But even Buster can meet his match, as the title of his final song implies: "When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings."
The remaining sequences of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs share a Coeneque awareness of imminent human mortality. Two are adaptations: "All Gold Canyon," a Jack London story about a lone prospector (Tom Waits), and "The Girl Who Got Spooked," a story by Stewart Edward White about a young woman (Zoe Kazan) facing danger while traveling alone with a wagon train. The rest are Coen Brothers originals, but carry strong accents of Bierce and even Poe: "Near Algodones," about a would-be bank robber (James Franco) who gets hanged twice in one day; "Meal Ticket," about a limbless actor (Harry Melling) touring the frontier with his long-suffering manager (Liam Neeson); and "The Mortal Remains," about stagecoach travelers (including Brendan Gleeson, Tyne Daly, and Saul Rubinek) headed for a destination that appears ever more ominous with each mile.
Featuring resplendent cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel, superb performances and an eclectic music score, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a bracing, ironic film about life and death in the West.
But even a Coen Brothers movie seems tame in comparison with Justin Kurzel's True History of the Kelly Gang. With a screenplay by Shaun Grant based on the Booker Prize-winning novel by Peter Carey, True History of the Kelly Gang is a sad, shocking movie about people brutalized by the circumstances of their time and place.
"Nothing in this story is true," the filmmakers warn us at the beginning, although the movie is faithful to the broad outlines of Kelly's history. However, True History of the Kelly Gang contains many inventions, including the unborn daughter to whom Kelly (George MacKay) addresses the final entries in his diary. The opening sequence of Kelly writing to his daughter is followed immediately by a scene in which the young Kelly (played as a boy by Orlando Schwerdt) watches his mother Ellen (Essie Davis, Kurzel's wife) give oral sex to Sgt. O'Neil (Charlie Hunnam).
The Kelly family lives in degradation; transported to Australia from Ireland for unstated crimes, its members remain under the thumb of Her Majesty's soldiers and police, who use and/or punish them at their whim. Ellen thinks it's a big break for Ned when she sells him for 15 pounds to bushranger Harry Power (Russell Crowe). Ned's apprenticeship with Power does not end well, and we next see him several years later, after a stretch in the penitentiary, earning a living as a bare-knuckle fighter. He travels via boxcar from bout to bout with his manager-lover Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan).
Ned returns home to find his mother cohabiting with a horse thief (Marlon Williams) and his kid brother Dan (Earl Cave) riding with a gang. Trying to get his family straight with the law, he makes a tentative friendship with Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult), as well as a romantic attachment with Mary (Thomasin McKenzie), one of the soiled doves in the brothel Fitzpatrick frequents. Unfortunately, Fitzpatrick proves to be just as treacherous as any other cop Ned has met. A few plot twists later, Ned is leading his own gang, seeking vengeance against authority in the name of his family and Ireland, his sanity declining as the violence escalates.
According to Grant's screenplay, Ned never had a chance. Throughout the story he is exploited and betrayed by everyone he meets, including a character toward the end who can best be described as Truman Capote to Ned's Perry Smith. Ned's mother is one of the worst. At one point, Ellen says proudly that the worth of a woman can be measured by how willing her children are to die for her.
Kurzel has a bravura style, poised somewhere between Guy Ritchie and Baz Luhrmann, but less alienating than either. The entire film takes place in a blighted landscape, the earth arid, the trees leafless. It contains a strong motif of sexual ambiguity; the bisexual Ned discovers early on that his father is a cross-dresser, and later his brother wears a dress as well. Eventually Ned himself cross-dresses and commands his gang to do the same, all the better—so he says--to throw the police off guard.
With the aid of cinematographer Ari Wagner, Kurzel creates some unforgettable scenes, especially the final assault on the Kelly Gang and a mournful final tracking shot. The true greatness of True History of the Kelly Gang, however, is in the acting, especially that of MacKay and Davis. Those who know MacKay only as the stalwart Private Schofield in 1917, and Davis only as Miss Phryne Fisher, are in for a shock. Loving and hating each other in equal measure, MacKay's Ned and Davis' Ellen represent the feral extremes of a mother-son relationship, two people who never expected or experienced other than the worst of human nature.
True History of the Kelly Gang is undeniably powerful, but so punishing that it can be recommended only to audiences with strong stomachs. It deserves to be ranked with such films as Animal Kingdom and The Revenant. It is a film you will be glad you saw—once.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is available free with a subscription to Netflix. First Cow and True History of the Kelly Gang are available for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime.