An anthology film comprised of six stories, each dealing with a different aspect of life in the Old West.
‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ is the latest film from the Coen Brothers, an anthology western originally envisaged as a TV series before being retooled and released as a film in their first collaboration with Netflix. The film tells six distinct stories, linked thematically, each dealing with a different aspect of life in the Old West. I’ve tended to find anthology films to be a little hit and miss but this is a really strong piece of work from the Coen brothers who are at their most comfortable in a western setting. Tonally the individually vignettes vary, although the blend of black comedy and dark drama is instantly recognisable as the Coen’s style, and the different segments provide the scope to explore different aspects of the genre.
I felt the first four stories were particularly strong, before it tailed off somewhat with the final two. Each section is linked by the turning of pages in a book, featuring a still shot taken from the tale that is about to be told, and we begin with the story that gives the film its title, with Tim Blake Nelson starring as the titular Buster Scruggs. This sets the tone for the offbeat weirdness that the film often explores and Nelson gives one of the best performances in a stellar ensemble (his most famous role is probably still his first collaboration with the Coen’s in ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’). Out of the six segments, ‘Meal Ticket’ was probably my highlight in a tale that follows an ageing impresario (Liam Neeson) and a quadriplegic artist (Harry Melling) who take their travelling theatre around various small towns as the audiences get smaller and smaller, building to a dark and heartbreaking conclusion. Harry Melling hasn’t appeared in much since his biggest role as Dudley Dursley in the ‘Harry Potter’ series and his truly moving performance here deserves to change that.
The cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel is superb, especially in ‘All Gold Canyon’ in the depiction of the luminous green, idyllic valley, and a typically great Carter Burwell score is supplemented by a few songs sung by the characters. ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ is both a departure for the Coen Brothers from their usual style, yet also deeply familiar all the same, and I thought it was a really enjoyable movie.
Directed By: Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring: Tim Blake Nelson, Willie Watson, David Krumholtz, Clancy Brown, James Franco, Stephen Root, Ralph Ineson, Jesse Luken, Liam Neeson, Harry Melling, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck, Grainger Hines, Jefferson Mays, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Saul Rubinek, Jonjo O’Neill and Chelcie Ross