Face Off: Night on Earth (1991) and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

You’re out late on a weekday night at the only bar in the whole dusty town. Been a rough day, not that you want to talk about it. Not that there’s anyone else in the bar even if you did want talk about it, except the bartender. He’s a wiry hipster in skintight plaid and heavy black glasses, like the 3D kind they give out at the movies only with the red and blue lenses removed. The kid perks when you arrive, a lone customer, live in three dimensions. He offers you a berry-infused session ale inspired by some monks somewhere, which you decline in favor of the cheap stuff inspired by simple thirst. “I’m Dylan if you need me,” he says, and you nod as if to confirm this is the perfect name for him. After an hour of drinking in silence the kid can’t help himself and he pours the monk berry ale into what looks like an Erlenmeyer flask and says “on the house” with a wink. You thank him, sip the syrupy purple goo. “Such a unique finish,” Dylan notes. “Anyone joining you tonight?” You shake your head. He recommends an app for meeting new people.

It’s just as aimless out on the street, despite the single sandy road leading only one place. The cinema, glowing like the lure of an anglerfish, is showing a double feature tonight: Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth and the Coens’ Ballad of Buster Scruggs. You buy a ticket from the ancient woman at the box office, her spindly witch’s fingers clutching your money and then waving you into the theater. You sit with your popcorn as the first segment of Jarmusch’s film begins. The only other people in the theater are a young couple talking loudly a few rows behind you, a guy and a girl, but their voices sound so similar it’s hard to tell who’s who. One says “Gimme some Skittles, Sammy, willya?” and the other says “Why didn’t you get your own? Jeez. Syd, stop it. Okay. Just put your hand out and I’ll pour them.”

Both films on the bill are like short-story anthologies, a series of short tales collected together with seemingly tenuous relation to each other. Night on Earth is five episodes set in five taxi cabs in five cities — L.A., New York, Paris, Rome, Helsinki — on a single night. The first has a young Winona Ryder smoking cigarettes and chomping bubblegum as Corky, an L.A. cabbie, shuttling Gena Rowlands‘s casting agent Victoria Snelling from LAX to Beverly Hills. Corky and Victoria don’t cross paths in the way you expect. Victoria Snelling, you think, is the perfect name for a snooty casting agent. But she’s not snooty at all, not quite, and she and Corky actually become friends by the time they hit the Hills. They don’t see eye-to-eye, but there’s a mutual understanding they share from having simply spent a few minutes together…and on that inconspicuous note the L.A. segment ends, Tom Waits’ guitar fades in as a segue, and suddenly we’re waiting for a cab in the Big Apple.

Night on Earth (1991)

Behind you, either Syd or Sammy sucks in a breath of air and says “…mmmkayyy…” in not-so-subtle disappointment at the muted arc of the L.A. segment. The NYC tale is much more vibrant, though, and it ends up being the best of Night on Earth. Giancarlo Esposito’s Yo-Yo and Armin Mueller-Stahl’s Helmut spend their bumpy ride dismantling barriers of language and culture, each of them busting out laughing at the other’s traditions and tendencies. There’s still not much story to the segment, though, and the smile lingering on your face when it ends shrinks by a few molars when you hear Syd or Sammy groan again and say “I hope something happens in the next one.”

Eventually The Ballad of Buster Scruggs rolls around, five cab rides later. It’s not exactly the best thing the Coens have ever done, to say the least, but then again it’s hard not to be engaged with even their weakest efforts. Scruggs starts with “Scruggs”, and the title tale ends with the unkillable Buster getting killed. If Scruggs does have one cohesive idea running throughout, it’s that: in this warped Wild West, there are no heroes. And hey, here’s Tom Waits again, this time as a prospector in the “All Gold Canyon” segment. Has Waits really not been in a Coen Brothers film before? He’s mangy and demented and perfect for their character roster. If Scruggs did have a hero, it’d be him.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

Syd and Sammy don’t think so. You hear them say “That was the worst one. They’re getting worse.” The usher, draped in shadow along the edge of the theater, emits a passive-aggressive sshhhhhhh in their direction. They pipe down until midway through “The Mortal Remains”, the final story in Scruggs and probably the least effective. As the five characters on screen are ferried to their hotel like souls heading south to the warmer climes of Hell, one of the characters behind you dumps what must be half a bag of Skittles across the rubbery tile of the theater. The beady candy trickles everywhere. At the edge of the theater the usher steps forward under the red light of the EXIT sign, and you see it’s the same old crone who issued your ticket a few hours ago.

Then the lights go up and you rise, gather your buttery popcorn bag of uneaten kernels. Your shoes stick a little and you sigh at the thought of having to scrape gummy Skittles off your foot on the curb outside. You get a look at Syd and Sammy and still can’t tell who’s who. One’s shrugging and saying “What was the point? Nothing happened. Nothing. Happened.”

Outside you light a cigarette. The pooling neon from the marquee makes the sidewalk red. Not a soul in sight until a scrawny figure heads your way, looking like he’s talking to himself. It’s Dylan, the hipster bartender from earlier, getting off his late shift. He’s talking on the phone through his earbuds, and for a fleeting moment you wonder who it is on the other end. He passes and eventually a cab alights on the far end of the street and you hail it down. The cabbie is an absolute beast of a man, his seat reclined to account for his girth, the dark carpeted hair of his back clawing over the collar of his oversized henley. He looks like Pavarotti, you think, and you see that his name on the laminated ID is Sancho. It’s the perfect name for him. You tell Sancho to head west and he grunts and kicks the toy car into gear. He’s a memorable character, Sancho, even if the rest of the ride seems pretty boring.

Night on Earth (1991)

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