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In Praise of Tom Waits, Character Actor

‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ gives Waits his first (mini-)leading role—but it’s the culmination of a varied and impressive second career

Tom Waits wearing a brown hat and looking down into a gold pan in ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ Netflix/Ringer illustration

There’s an edge to Tom Waits’s voice—a rasp miraculously capable of carrying a melody—that makes it one of a kind. When he sings forcefully, it seems like he might start breathing flame through sheer will; when he tries his hand at sweetness, it’s disarming and enchanting in equal parts. Each song is a microcosm in which Waits, despite being the author, isn’t playing God so much as he is an emissary, providing a glimpse into another world.

That strange, singular quality carries over to his acting, and filmmakers have been capitalizing on it for years. Terry Gilliam, Francis Ford Coppola, Jim Jarmusch, Martin McDonagh—all of these directors, among others, have harnessed Waits’s talents with wildly varying characters in scenes that might as well play as monologues for how beguiling he invariably is. His talent as a singer-songwriter is matched by his acting; he steals any scene he’s in, no matter who’s got top billing.

Just take a look at his first film role in 1978, in Sylvester Stallone’s Paradise Alley. He sits at a piano, his head twisting like a reed in the wind as he ekes out a melody to go along with what he’s playing. It’s an owlish quality that doesn’t quite go away even when he’s interrupted for a split-second exchange with Stallone, whose ponderous delivery is complemented by Waits’s natural growl. It’s barely a scene at all, but Waits has such an otherworldly presence that the image of him imprints in one’s memory.

This magnetism is also what makes him a perfect devil in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, as well as a compelling Renfield in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Though the characters are as different as can be, one a cosmic force and the other a hapless servant, they share a common ground in how human Waits makes them seem. His Lucifer, referred to as “Mr. Nick,” isn’t a force for evil so much as he is looking for a connection and a bit of fun. And Renfield—with his hair piled atop his head as if in supplication to some higher power while scrounging in the dirt and eating the bugs he finds there—manages to shake free from his master’s sway just long enough to warn against his coming.

In the four decades Waits has been acting, he has evolved just as he has as a musician, breaking out of being typecast (as a musician, given his background) and moving into more eclectic roles as his music shifted from folk to jazz, from blues to experimental music. To that end, it feels like Waits’s collaboration with the Coen brothers, masters of the kind of strangeness that Waits traffics in, is long overdue. But, in exchange for the wait, the chapter of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs in which he stars is his, and his alone. Though Waits has had big roles before (in Jarmusch’s Down by Law and in Héctor Babenco’s Ironweed), this is the first time the weight of a film—short though it may be—has rested so squarely on his shoulders.

Each chapter of Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest film plays with a different sense of language. The first chapter sees Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) singing and shooting his way through the West; another, “Meal Ticket,” is a two-hander (Liam Neeson and Harry Melling) that would be a silent film if not for the recitation of poetry and prose.

Waits’s segment, “All Gold Canyon,” seems like a one-man show. As a nameless prospector, he putters about a valley, carrying on a dialogue with “Mr. Pocket,” the pocket gold deposit he’s looking for, but no other living soul. (At least, not until a brief encounter with a potential thief.) There’s an inherent musicality to his performance—and not just figuratively, as his character is introduced warbling along to “Mother Machree”—as his lines are peppered in between grunts and groans and the methodic sounds of his toiling away at the earth.

It’s a ballad in and of itself; it’s just that the only instrument is Waits from start to finish. So it goes with his other big film appearance this year, as part of Robert Redford’s bank-robbing posse in The Old Man & the Gun. Waits doesn’t have too much to do, and he’s also unusually dialed back. But that’s the performance that’s demanded of a movie that is, itself, a relatively quiet work. Though his character gets a small, bright moment explaining to his colleagues why he hates Christmas, as the film’s focus narrows in on Redford, Waits disappears like smoke.

The role—perhaps his most resolutely normal to date—is surprising in the same way it is when Waits sings in a higher register (“House Where Nobody Lives”) as opposed to in his usual bass (“Little Drop of Poison”), and that range helps pull together a collective image of Waits’s creative output. Everything he does seems to act as an extension of him, taking preexisting Waitsian qualities—his voice, his appearance—and transposing them into different keys as the art demands.

There’s an ease to Waits’s work in Buster Scruggs that makes it seem like it might just be what straddles the line between the two mediums—or come closest to really defining what Waitsian might mean—as his growl pitches high, low, and all over the place in his search for gold. For all that the chapter teeters into cheerful, outsize silliness, Waits lends it all a remarkable naturalism, his fists pumping emphatically at his sides whenever he speaks or sings as if that gesture might help his voice carry more clearly from his body. As he wanders off the frame at the end of the chapter, once again singing “Mother Machree,” the reprise serves a perfect cap. Though he may contain multitudes—songs and films, sinners and saints—there’s only one Tom Waits.

Karen Han is a film and TV critic and entertainment reporter at Polygon, based in New York City.