The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, 2018.
Directed by Joel and Ethan 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.
Six stories make up Joel and Ethan Coen’s Western anthology epic, taking in everything from singing cowboys, gold in them there hills, a wagon train, and even a hint of Wild West Horror.
The Coen Brothers return to the dusty plains of America, a landscape that served them well with True Grit, to weave this six shooter tale of American morality, which unsurprisingly is inconsistent, but because it’s filtered through their own inimitable lens, always remains a fascinating watch.
It doesn’t help when you swing open the saloon doors with your strongest section. Using that classic genre trope of a book being opened, our first chapter is ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’. A vignette in which Tim Black Nelson’s titular singing cowboy smiles his way through a western canvas that looks like an old-school studio backdrop. It’s a delightfully silly segment, peppered with moments of creative genius – Buster’s dust shadow as he taps his suit, a shot from inside the drum of his guitar – which comes across as a mix between Roy Rogers and Deadpool. There’s a palpable sense of disappointment when it finishes.
It’s exacerbated by the fact the story which immediately follows it – James Franco’s bank robber segment ‘Near Algodones’ – is so humdrum in comparison, but at least that’s the shortest part of this anthology.
We then have the most maudlin tale, ‘Meal Ticket’, in which Liam Neeson’s Impresario carts Harry Melling’s quadruple amputee performer around the bleakest corners of this world to earn some coin. There’s an unsettling sadness to the story, but it’s quite a repetitive, underwhelming execution of it.
The complete antithesis of this is the absolutely stunning way in which the Coen’s shoot the Tom Wait’s starring ‘All Gold Canyon’. A one man and his donkey journey into a valley as he pans for gold. It’s a sequence that makes BBC’s Planet Earth look slapdash, as butterflies dance among the flowers, fry gather in the shallows, and the breathtaking scope of the canyon is framed through a deer’s antlers. The fact it contains the best performance by an owl outside of Hundred Acre Wood is a bonus.
Up until this point in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, there has been disposable feel to the stories. Sure they’re layered with subtext about the American dream, the nature of humans, and the fear of death, but it’s not until the Zoe Kazan (excellent) centric ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled” that we get any meaningful characters worth caring about. It’s a section which, a lot like the opening sequence, makes you wish the Coen’s had made an entire film with just these people. A sweeping wagon train story that’s imbued with the kind of Western romanticism that was the foundation of the genre.
It bows out with a Hateful Eight style wagon monologue merry-go-round, which stirs in a gothic horror element to proceedings, but doesn’t close the book on the most memorable page.
Part pastiche, part parody, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs might benefit from it’s Netflix bow later in the year. The lavish cinematography will be diminished, but for a film which feels like a binge-watch series, it might be the most perfect way to consume this entertaining medley.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film ★ ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★ ★
Matt Rodgers – Follow me on Twitter @mainstreammatt