There is something deeply enticing about anthologies. Don’t like this story? Don’t worry, another one will come along presently. The Coen Brothers have made a long and illustrious career out of very well made and stylised films. Their movies often puncture sombreness with dark humour, and yet conversely drown good natured characters in the depths of horrible fates. ‘
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a collection of western-themed stories of varying lengths. And in many ways is the distilled Coens experience. It had a limited theatre run and is essentially debuting on Netflix. Each story is book-ended by literal pages from the eponymous Ballad of Buster Scruggs. An old-style illustrated plate shows an important moment in the forthcoming tale. Beneath that is a quote with some key dialogue to come. And the shot zooms into the book’s text before melting into the tale itself. Each story is completely self-contained although thematically they do get progressively darker.
The wide cast vary from typically Coen-esque larger than life characters to some sad and tragic figures. Our first tale is Buster himself, starring Tim Blake Nelson. Of all the pieces this is the most familiar with a very ‘O ‘Brother, Where Art Thou’ vibe. Incidentally that also starred Blake Nelson. The forth wall breaking Buster merrily sings and verbalises his way down the ol’ dusty trail, only to swiftly put to death any trouble he comes across. There’s thigh slapping, hootenanny having, gun slinging fun. Getting you warmed up is this 15 minute opener.
James Franco (True Story) leads in the next piece, ‘Near Algodones’. Another simple and short yarn about a perennially unlucky outlaw who dodges one fate only to succumb to the next. This is the lightest things will get. Franco’s weary one-liner to a fellow unlucky soul will likely elicit the biggest laugh.
The following stories tread more ‘cursed things happen to good people’ stories. Liam Neeson is misleadingly disarming (albeit mostly silent) in ‘Meal Ticket’. As the travelling curator of a ‘world famous orator’, said skilled talker, also sadly without arms or legs, is so utterly reliant on Neeson for everything. The Old West townspeople start off cheering to renditions of Shakespeare and The Gettysburg Address. But as crowds dwindle and novelty animals draw a bigger clamouring of paying patrons, what does fate have in store for them both? I personally find Neeson a rather overrated actor who tends to operate on one vocal level (unpopular opinion)! However, here he facially communicates a lot. At first touchingly feeding his ward after a successful show, but then barely hiding the calculations going on behind the mask as the ticket sales steadily drop off.
The Coens have always excelled at using colour saturation as a mood guider. ‘Meal Ticket’ focuses on a green and white sheen (suggesting the boom and bust of business) whilst Franco’s tale is a smeared dustbowl orange. ‘All Gold Canyon’ enjoys cinematography that glows with radiance. And allows the natural beauty of a Colorado canyon shine by using wide panoramic shots. Tom Waits plays a gold digging prospector in another mostly silent vignette. He spends 15 solid minutes methodically hunting for pay dirt, only to find he isn’t the only hunter. In a nice touch, virtually all the animals flee when people arrive and then return when people vacate. Digging in the ground for shiny things is a human folly.
Darkness comes insidiously during the closing story, ‘The Mortal Remains’. The sun sneakily disappears from view during a stagecoach journey that gets more and more ominous as time passes. When the sun is still up and the coach is racing forward, a raggedy old trapper waxes on ceaselessly to his unwilling companions (a twinkle in the eye Frenchman and a haughty middle aged woman) about how people are (apparently) like ferrets or beavers. But as the sun vanishes beneath the horizon, the mysterious duo in front of them disconcertingly soliloquise. As the coach driver ignores their pleas (“he never stops”) it is clear something is amiss. Their argumentativeness drops into a silent camaraderie as their dark destination awaits. This episode stars Brendan Gleeson from In The Heart Of The Sea.
This is the Coen’s great skill. Whilst sometimes accused of painting with broad strokes, they can sometimes craft more instant characterisation from a few lines of distinctive dialogue than other movies can wrangle out of a full 90 minutes. The warmest story is the penultimate one, ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled’. The genuine and hard-done by Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) suffers a somewhat welcome bereavement on her wagon train journey across the plains to Oregon. A lovely romance blossoms as the camera lingers over campfires and some glorious old west dialogue. This may take a turn, but it’s nice whilst it lasts!
Six different stories may mean that some are not for you. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs starts off light and short. But as stories lengthen the beauty of the short story is apparent. 20 minutes to paint a clearly defined picture. The Western genre suits this well. The Coens excel at creating moments, creating self-contained worlds that imprint into the mind. For feature length movies this can be a bit hit or miss (The Ladykillers, anyone). But for those who want to get stuck into some good narrative craftwork, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs will be a delight.
Words by Michael Record