The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, 2018.
Directed by Ethan Coen & Joel Coen.
Starring Tim Blake Nelson, Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, Tom Waits, Harry Melling, Zoe Kazan, James Franco, Bill Heck, Grainger Hines, Chelcie Ross, and Jonjo O’Neill.
A collection of six Western-style shorts set out on the frontier, taking in stories of a singing gunslinger, a bank robber, a travelling impresario, a gold prospector, a young woman on the Oregon Trail and a stagecoach journey.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs sees the Coen brothers teaming up with Netflix, and it’s sure to be a hit. Returning to Western territory, last successfully mined by them for 2010’s stellar True Grit re-make, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is some of their finest work. Eschewing the standard narrative format, Joel and Ethan Coen have instead written six shorts, told one after the other, all revolving around a different frontier experience – be it a robbery, a stagecoach journey or travelling the Oregon Trail, for example. They really work well together, being concisely structured and very well-written (obvs). Some are slightly stronger or more easy to engage with than others, but each has merit and offers a potential favourite for most tastes. As has come to be expected from the Coen brothers, there is plenty of humour to appreciate (sweet, silly and gory), as well as a fair amount of meditation on the human condition in the film’s subtext. And while you’re busy thinking and laughing, the Coens won’t shy away from delivering the odd traumatic blow. They’re not interesting in re-inventing or updating the Western genre, more so celebrating the stories upon which the United States were found, so gung-ho gunslingers, wide-mouth drawls, ‘savage’ Indians and virtuous maidens remain.
As with most Coen productions, this film is very well cast. Many of the actors aren’t necessarily household names, but the quality of all performances is evident. Although many established stars line up to be directed by the Coen brothers, they still spread their net pleasingly wide.
The comedy makes this the film that it is, especially when the Coens wield it so well as a tool – even in the gentler, less frantic segments, it’s still there: a dog that won’t stop barking, and the morbid humour in the glee of a gold prospector who survives a bullet from a rival.
‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ is the best segment with which to open the film, and one of the best of the bunch: it’s high-energy, unexpected and very entertaining. Tim Blake Nelson gives a blazing performance as happy but sinister Scruggs, and showcases his melodious voice on ‘Cool, Clear Water’ among other folk tunes. This section also serves as a fabulous pastiche of westerns and musicals, as any time is an appropriate time to burst into song.
James Franco delivers one of the best lines throughout the whole proceedings in the faintly more realistic, bank robbing second short, packed with literal gallows humour, while Harry Potter’s Harry Melling pops up as a ‘wingless’ actor entertaining dwindling audiences with his words in the third and most disturbing segment. Liam Neeson is the impresario keeping their show on the road.
Tom Waits enjoys almost an entire segment to himself as an elderly prospector searching for gold in the most stunning of landscapes. He sings happily to himself, if not to the local wildlife who flee on hearing his performance. ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled’ is the most low-key of the six shorts, although perhaps the most impactful with its tender story and three terrific characters in Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) and Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines). The final short, ‘The Mortal Remains’, sees an almost literal representation of the Englishman, Frenchman and Irishman joke – only this time there’s a humourless lady and an elderly trapper present, too, and they’re on a stagecoach whose driver stops for nothing. It’s the mark of great directors that the most famous actor by far in this segment (Brendan Gleeson) is happy to simply be counted a member of the cast, with the more flamboyant Englishman role handled well by Jonjo O’Neill, and Chelcie Ross’s ‘tedious’ trapper showing perfect comic timing.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs boasts authentic production design and costumes, from mangy trapper furs to brightly-painted saloons. The brilliant Carter Burwell also brings his music back for yet another collaboration with the Coens (number 16), with a style separate but reminiscent of the great work he did on True Grit.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an homage to a beloved American theme and setting, all the more improved by the sharp and sometimes surreal edge of the Coens’ pen. They haven’t reinvented a genre, but they’ve certainly polished it up somethin’ purrtty.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★