Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring: Tyne Daly, James Franco, Brendan Gleeson, Bill Heck, Grainger Hines, Zoe Kazan, Harry Melling, Liam Neeson, Tim Blake Nelson, Jonjo O'Neill, Chelcie Ross, Saul Rubinek, Tom Waits
“Go west, life is peaceful there…”
Joel and Ethan, the brothers Coen, have always worn their affection for the Wild West on their directorial sleeves. No Country for Old Men, True Grit, Blood Simple and, their previous offering, Hail Caesar! (for that singing cowboy section) are all wonderful examples of the Brothers’ seemingly meticulous ability to capture the feel and aesthetic of that period and genre. Teaming with Netflix, their latest effort, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a six-story anthology all set in the sprawling West.
The titular first part finds a sharpshooting, singing cowboy (Nelson) meet his match, in part two (“Near Algodones”) a young cowboy (Franco) attempts to rob a bank but doesn’t bank on the wiliness of the bank teller. Part three (“Meal Ticket”) sees an impresario (Neeson) find his travelling artist’s (Melling) profitability wane and his method of solving it whilst part four (“All Gold Canyon”) has an old prospector (Waits) digging for gold in the remote valleys, but he’s not alone. Part five (“The Gal Who Got Rattled”) is the story of a young woman (Kazan) taking a fateful wagon journey with her brother and dog with the threat of Indian attack ever-present. The final part (“The Mortal Remains”) sees five strangers trading stories on a stagecoach heading towards a mysterious final destination.
Anthology stories can be hit-and-miss. Some try too hard to connect their tales whilst others have nothing in common and end up jarring in quality and tones. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs falls into the latter category in the sense that the tales don’t connect narratively, however, they are all set in the same vast region and the quality remains near-consistent throughout – i.e. very, very good. It’s the irrationality of humanity and death that flows through every story. Cheery singing and dancing and Peckinpah-esque heists and gunfights sit alongside betrayals, tragedy, love, optimism, allegories aplenty and a transcendental finale – each story takes on a new tone and style, but somehow still feel connected without explicitly relying on being so. Those first three stories are superb in almost every aspect, only slowing down when “All Gold Canyon” begins – the Tom Waits-led story probably the weakest of the bunch. Zoe Kazan’s “The Gal Who Got Rattled” is the most cinematic of them all and allows for romance and tragedy to take centre stage. With storybook-styled openings to each segment, each story begins with a lovely illustrated piece and a brief quote to accompany it and compounds the anthology aspect nicely.
Tim Blake Nelson is affably great as the singing cowboy Busters Scruggs and Zoe Kazan, also, is very good as Alice Longabaugh – the sweet but stricken lead in “The Gal Who Got Rattled”. The odd couple of Liam Neeson and Harry Melling (Dudley Dursley from the Harry Potter saga) share a good, unspoken chemistry and Melling’s theatrical leanings shine through in his performance - though Neeson is chillingly good in one particular scene. The sweeping landscapes are captured gorgeously by DoP Bruno Delbonnel – from the vast deserts to the stunning mountain valleys and meadows, the sheer beauty of the Wild West shimmers on the screen as if they were lovingly painted for the occasion. Carter Burwell’s lovely score perfectly accompanies the tales and is one of the better scores of the year.
The seemingly-random selection of tales may not be for everyone’s taste, however, for this reviewer, the folk-tale style of storytelling is an excellent convention for these stories and the Coen’s take on life, death and the unjustness of it all meshes perfectly. A few drops in momentum and pace aside, each story will snare your attention and demand your focus. Bonkers, attractive, poignant and smothered in Coen goodness, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a damn fine ode to Old Hollywood and the Wild West.
December 3rd 2018