Comprising six short films dedicated to separate aspects of life in the Old West, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs introduces us to a gunslinger equal parts lethal and whimsical, an old gold prospector close to hitting a rich pocket and a stagecoach ride with five strangers bound in each other’s company during a darkening night.
From the first strum of the eponymous crooner’s guitar, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs excels in delivering weird and wild in equal parts. This is typical of the Coen brothers’ films, but their recent efforts seem to focus on subverting genre tropes or socio-cultural archetypes at the expense of building a story around richly-developed characters. 2016’s Hail Cesar! sold the narrative world well but left the characters a little empty. Ditto for their screenwriting on Suburbicon. This doesn’t make for bad cinema by any stretch of the imagination – but it does make many of the characters forgettable or disposable.
This certainly defines The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Each vignette introduces us to new characters in different landscapes, and each ending with a death. The settings and scenarios sticks in the memory, while the characters are either dealt with swiftly or are buried under sensationalised melodrama. Some of the short stories suit this style of film. The opener, with Tim Blake Nelson as the gunslinging singer Buster Scruggs, is a wonderful ode to some of the Western’s classic tropes. High noon standoffs, a poker match gone wrong, saloons filled with burly outlaws – all wrapped in old-timey tunes. The second, starring James Franco as a bank robber, is a little more forgettable but still serves up some excellent set pieces. Then, my favourite vignette – Meal Ticket. Harry Melling (unrecognisable from his days as dumpy Dudley from Harry Potter) and Liam Neeson spin a sad tale of traveling entertainers facing dwindling audiences and finances. The minimal dialogue works in an excellent narrative that builds tension while still selling silliness.
From there, however, the quality slumps a little. All Gold Canyon, with Tom Waits as an aging prospector was beautifully shot but a little flat, the zaniness a little too zany. The next segment, starring Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck, falls even flatter. In what was meant to be the most character-driven segment, the wider flaws of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs become obvious. This section was downright boring, the acting wooden, the dialogue spinning in circles. The budding romance between Kazan and Heck’s characters became as monotonous as the long trail they follow west. This segment also exposed flaws in the Coens’ treatment of female and Native American characters. Although true to the tenants of the Western genre, the brothers could have done more to paint the groups as anything other than background dressing or mindless savages, respectively.
But the final story, The Mortal Remains, brought the film back from the brink. An eerie reflection on mortality and death, Jonjo O’Neill (the mysterious Englishman) steals the scene with vaudevillian musings on life and humanity. The lighting and colour palette is excellent, a tailor fit for the narrative as the stagecoach ride becomes more ominous. This is the Coen brothers at their finest – taking aspects of theatre, cinema, and oration to deliver a final weighty, twisted tale to bring the curtain down on their trip West.
Catch The Ballad of Buster Scruggs on Netflix now.
The Coen’s latest ballad to the Western hits some sweet notes but falls flat in its more human moments. Left in trail dust by the pair’s classics, but worth the watch. 6.5/10.