The James Franco Section Is the Best Part of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The 2018 Movie Club: an interruption.

James Franco with a noose around his neck in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
James Franco in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Netflix.

In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—this year, K. Austin Collins, Amy Nicholson, and Bilge Ebiri—about the year in cinema. Read the first entry here.

Pardon me, I’m so sorry, but I must interrupt this Movie Club.

As the Movie Club’s editor, I am typically content to watch from afar, confident that the wise critics of the club will speak truth to the readers of Slate dot com. But few know that the Movie Club editor also stands at the ready, the lone sentinel, willing to step in should the Movie Clubbers state an opinion so unbelievably wrong that it must be parried before it hardens into conventional wisdom. I take this duty of editorial oversight very seriously and rarely have needed to intercede. Which is why it is with great seriousness that I interrupt this conversation to say:

The James Franco section is the best part of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs!

Dana, you are completely incorrect! You claim, “No conversation about that movie ever includes the words James Franco”? Maybe that’s because everyone you’re conversing with is still speechless with awe at the tiny masterpiece that is “Near Algodones,” the second installment in the Coen brothers’ Netflix anthology of Old West tales.

I liked all six of the stories in Buster Scruggs, even the one I fell asleep during. Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck are lovely; who knew Dudley Dursley was so eloquent; Tom Waits is the king. Yet it is “Near Algodones,” 11 tightly packed minutes of slapstick tragedy, that I’ve returned to over and over.

“Near Algodones” tells the simple tale of a hapless crook who chooses the wrong bank to rob. He’s captured, convicted, sent to the noose, saved, captured, convicted, sent to the noose again, and then sees a pretty girl. It’s got everything: a guy with a stupid beard getting two arrows through the throat; a couple of kangaroo courts; a bank teller’s jerry-rigged anti-theft system, involving three shotguns and a dozen pots and pans; the longest, most inane Stephen Root monologue since he played Milton in Office Space.

Through it all, Franco is a perfect handsome dummy, that toothy, gleaming standard-bearer of the Coen brothers’ Idiot Movies. He’s a proud member of the lineage that includes George Clooney in Burn After Reading, George Clooney in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and George Clooney in Intolerable Cruelty. Always precisely two steps behind, Franco’s crook never quite understands what it is that capricious fate is doing to him; the Coens’ snappy editing moves him from square to square on their New Mexico checkerboard faster than he can figure things out. “That pan-covered son of a bitch back at the bank don’t hardly fight fair, in my opinion,” he declares, still angry about the last injustice even as the next one stares him in the face. (And the next one, unbeknownst to all, is nocking an arrow even as he speaks.) Only at the end, up on the gallows, does he finally catch up, and the Coens reward him with the gifts only they can bestow: the best joke of the year (“First time?”); a smile from a young lady in blue; the hoots and cheers of the crowd as it all goes dark. Dana Stevens is wrong, and “Near Algodones” is perfect. I think I’ll go watch it again.

Now please, carry on with the Movie Club.

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