Review – Western anthology ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ shows every shade of the Coens

Patrick Wilson is the main host of the weekly Popcorn Muncher Podcast and also writes as a regular guest contributor to The Popcorn Muncher.

Poster for 2018 western anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Genre: Western
Certificate: 15
UK Release Date: 9th November 2018
Runtime: 133 minutes
Director: Coen Brothers
Writer: Coen Brothers
Starring: Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Harry Melling, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Brendan Gleeson
Synopsis: Six tales of the Old West from the Coen Brothers, including a quick on the draw singing cowboy, a grizzled gold prospector and a group of strangers aboard a stagecoach.

 

 

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is the new venture by the Coen Brothers. The Coens collated these stories over the span of 20 years and the project was rumoured to originally be heading for release as a six-part TV series. The end result, however, has turned out to be an anthology movie featuring half a dozen short tales of death in the Wild West. As much as I’d love to have seen that original TV version, which could have given each story the required time, what we have here are truncated versions of these tales that end up making the majority of them feel sparse and meaningless.

There’s a lot of directorial flair in this movie, even considering the move to digital filmmaking – a first for the Coens. The brothers always bring their directorial A-game, whether it’s in a masterpiece like No Country for Old Men or a fun aside for them such as Hail, Caesar. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs falls into the fun aside category of their work, but often lacks that spark of originality or excitement that they usually bring. The end result is a movie that feels like a series of exquisitely produced segments about nothing.

The film actually gets off to a great start with the eponymous tale. Tim Blake Nelson is an absolute delight as the Bugs Bunny-esque Scruggs. He speaks to the camera, sings, dances and murders several people with his keen sharpshooting skills. It’s really funny and charming whilst also being filled with the trademark gallows humour that the Coens know how to execute perfectly, including a ridiculous scene featuring a criminally underused Clancy Brown and a loose poker table. But just as soon as you begin to get absorbed by the quirky tone and style, it’s already over.

It’s criminally short and definitely could have been given more time in the space of a TV episode running time, something that becomes a theme throughout. In this vein, the second tale ‘Near Algodones’ is barely worth discussing, other than the always brilliant Stephen Root as a bank teller. It’s short, barely anything happens and it’s over in the blink of an eye. It’s a total waste of running time that could have been better served with the other, more interesting stories.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is the Coen Brothers's take on an anthology western
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is the Coen Brothers’s take on an anthology western

‘Meal Ticket’ is probably the most misguided tale of the bunch. It follows Liam Neeson as a theatre impresario who travels with a quadriplegic entertainer (Harry Melling from Harry Potter) who recites poetry and speeches. It’s short enough on plot that any more details will spoil it, but needless to say it’s far too on the nose and awfully pretentious. I’m shocked that such meticulous filmmakers could produce a segment that feels so vapid, empty and just in bad taste overall.

‘All Gold Canyon’ is much better. An unrecognisable Tom Waits plays an elderly prospector hunting for a pocket of gold. Waits is unrecognisable and brings a real quirkiness and humanity to the role. Considering the entire segment is focused on him, he carries it flawlessly. The twist in the tale comes out of nowhere, yet feels earned and is probably the first segment of the bunch that feels thematically complete, as well as just being thoroughly entertaining. It also features some fantastic shots framing the beautiful scenery of Telluride.

‘The Gal Who Got Rattled’ is again much better. It’s an enjoyable tale that follows the meeting and beginnings of a courtship along the Oregon Trail between Bill Heck’s cowboy guide and Zoe Kazan’s waif. It takes its time, character comes first and the two leads are charming with lots of chemistry. Heck’s southern drawl in particular is pitch-perfect and captures the old school western spirit that the entire production is trying to capture. The segment ends in a bittersweet manner and has a thrilling finale that makes me wish more of the stories could have had the breathing room that this one was afforded.

Final segment ‘The Mortal Remains’ is a bit of a damp squib. This tale follows five strangers, of different backgrounds, travelling in a horse-drawn carriage. They discuss their life and what brought them to travel together. It’s heavily dialogue-focused and feels like a scene ripped from a Quentin Tarantino movie, but seems stranded. It made me think of other anthology shows like Inside No. 9 that take stripped-back material and make it feel like a more complete tale than something carved out of a greater whole. I think the segment is trying to subvert the expectations set up from the previous stories which, if the case, is both pretentious and overall underwhelming.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs ends up being a mixed bag with its low points making you wish the high points had been given more time. The Coens are amazing filmmakers who are better served with a tighter focus. Still, the good points feel reminiscent of some of their best material, which make it all the more painful when the lesser parts feel boring and pointless.

 

Pop or Poop?

Rating: Pop!

It’s a timid recommendation, this one, because there are some great moments in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, as you’d expect from something as inherently mixed as an anthology movie. However, the film pales in comparison to the Coen Brothers’ other, better work and doesn’t live up to their usual high standard.

 

Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.

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