The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The films of the Coen brothers have historically adopted a variety of tones and styles, ranging from the broad, sentimental wackiness of Raising Arizona to the sombre despairing reflection of No Country for Old Men, via the pitch-black surrealism of Barton Fink. In their latest work, released through Netflix, all these disparate voices are represented. The film started life as a miniseries and now emerges as an anthology of short stories of disparate timbres, set in the old western states of America. As with many anthologies, the film works some real wonders but ultimately ends up less than the sum of its varied parts.
The stories are told sequentially and have no common thread beyond being uniformly gorgeous and the ever-present spectre of death, who takes a leading role in the last. The first, from which the anthology takes its name, follows a cocksure, singing, fourth wall breaking, sharpshooting outlaw (think Deadpool in the old west) played with endearingly jovial enthusiasm by Tim Blake Nelson. It’s a witty, wacky, occasionally shocking hors d’œuvre for the six-course meal to come. In the second, we meet an unlucky, none-too-bright would be bank robber played by James Franco, it has some sparky moments and a beautifully poignant ending but is by far the most disposable of the sextet. The third and possibly darkest centres around a limbless travelling orator and his exploitative manager played by Harry Melling and Liam Neeson. It’s a tragic little fable with some bitingly critical commentary of American culture, told almost entirely without dialogue and is an abrupt tonal shift from the broad comedy of the first two. The fourth, and possibly my favourite, follows a gruff prospector played by Tom Waits, panning for gold in an Eden-like valley, it’s picturesque, peaceful and charming but has the same dark edge as the others. The straightest, best and certainly saddest is the story of a skittish young woman following a wagon train along the Oregon Trail, it's the one you'll remember and it's heartbreakingly played by Zoe Kazan. The last is a dark parable that leaves behind the sincerity of the previous story and returns to a safe comic distance, following a stagecoach through the night as it slowly dawns on its inhabitants exactly where their destination might be.
As mentioned before, the film looks stunning with scenery and sets and cinematography to keep you spellbound in even the slower stories, and the cast is all terrific, funny and pitiful each when the situation demands. The question does arise of whether this needed to be a film as the stories don't really gain any greater significance through being told together, in fact, the opposite, with tragedies and farces placed side by side it takes some readjustment whenever a new story begins. The funny stories would be funnier if you weren't still wiping tears away and the sad stories would have more gravity if they weren't nestled among so much absurdism. The lack of any sort frame narrative does feel like a missed opportunity and good though all the stories are none were in themselves among the Coen's best work and are much stronger in isolation than as a set, especially the fifth story, that although by far the strongest is a completely different tone to the others and deserved to be told separately.
This film certainly acts as a reminder of their versatility and tremendous technical skill and it’s a consistently effective, often amusing, and always engaging diversion that occasionally wrong-foots you into moments of real crippling pathos.