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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs review: Superbly crafted if frustrating Coen brothers film

It yields many pleasures along the way but still leaves an unsatisfying, half a sandwich after-feeling

Geoffrey Macnab
Wednesday 14 November 2018 14:17 GMT
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs - trailer

Dir Joel Coen, Ethan Coen; starring: Tim Blake Nelson, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck. Cert tbc, 132 mins.

The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs is both delightful and frustrating. Writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen originally intended to make it as a six-part series for TV but then decided to combine its separate episodes in a single feature film. That means they are serving up tasty morsels rather than a full meal. The Netflix-backed film ends up feeling bitty and elliptical.

The title story is magnificently entertaining. Tim Blake Nelson stars as Buster Scruggs, a singing cowboy in the Gene Autry or Roy Rogers mould. He dresses in white, looks clean scrubbed compared with the dirt-crusted varmints continually drawing on him and provides a running commentary direct to camera as he shoots down all his enemies. He is the fastest gun in the West and isn’t above gloating about the fact. Few compare to the Coens when it comes to combining humour with violence. Scruggs is one of their great comic creations, a genial, smiling figure who is always scrupulously polite, even when he is on a murderous rampage. He has a dulcet baritone voice when he sings. His horse is as sleek and intelligent as he is.

Scruggs is such personable company that he could easily have carried an entire movie – and several sequels too. Sadly, he is only on screen for a matter of minutes before the Coens move onto their second “frontier tale”, “Near Algodones”. This is darker in tone, albeit nicely played by James Franco as a fatalistic cowboy/bank robber who keeps on finding a noose wrapped around his neck. The scene of the vengeful banker in armoured plating made of pots and pans evokes memories of Orson Welles’ Falstaff charging across the battlefield in Chimes At Midnight.

The film is a veritable feast of character acting. In one episode, Tom Waits plays a harrumphing gold prospector who looks and sounds even more unkempt and gruff than Lee Marvin in Paint Your Wagon. In another, Liam Neeson is a mountebank/travelling showman wandering from town to town with his limbless artist (Harry Melling) who recites Shakespeare and passages from the bible in a John Gielgud-like voice to bewildered but curious frontier folk. Brendan Gleeson is seen as a very unlikely looking bounty hunter. Zoe Kazan is the young Laura Ingalls Wilder type, facing all manner of misfortune on a wagon train to Oregon.

Although the humour is always there, some of the episodes are very bleak. Neeson’s character wears a bowler hat and looks as if he could have walked out of a production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot. When travellers in a stagecoach start talking together, their discussions are both funny and unsettling. They touch on some of the darkest aspects of human nature.

The prelude to the film suggests Buster Scruggs is going to be escapist cowboy fare, along the lines of The Virginian. Images of a beautifully illustrated book are shown on screen. Each episode is taken from one of its chapters. These lavish, brightly coloured picture plates belie the filmmakers’ real preoccupations. Every story here turns out to be about the fear of death. The chicken that performs astounding feats of arithmetic and the little yapping dog that joins the pioneers on the Oregon trail provide some light relief but can’t hide the grimness of the underlying themes.

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Buster Scruggs is superbly crafted. It’s both a pastiche of old westerns and a loving celebration of them. Depending on which vantage point any given story takes, the landscapes either look as majestic as the valleys and prairies in John Ford films or seem bleakly monotonous and very, very empty. The Coens appear in the end to share the world view of the ornery, misanthropic old trapper who tells his fellow travellers in the stagecoach that people are essentially like ferrets. They can be vicious and comic at the very same time. The fun comes from watching them bite and wriggle.

It’s ironic that Buster Scruggs is both one of the most despairing works in the Coens’ canon and one of the most lightweight. It yields many pleasures along the way but still leaves an unsatisfying, half a sandwich after-feeling. The anthology format doesn’t allow the master storytellers to engage with their characters in anything like the depth that they do in features from Fargo to No Country For Old Men. For once, we get only vignettes and sketches, not full-blown portraits.

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