D: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen / 133m
Cast: Tyne Daly, James Franco, Brendan Gleeson, Bill Heck, Grainger Hines, Zoe Kazan, Harry Melling, Liam Neeson, Tim Blake Nelson, Jonjo O’Neill, Chelcie Ross, Saul Rubinek, Tom Waits
Six tales from the Old West: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, in which the titular singing outlaw (Nelson) rides into a small town and finds himself threatened with being shot at almost every turn; Near Algodones, in which a would-be bank robber (Franco) underestimates the difficulty of robbing his latest target, and winds up on the verge of being lynched; Meal Ticket, in which a grizzled impresario (Neeson) travels from town to town in a wagon that converts into a small stage that allows an armless and legless young orator called Harrison (Melling) to perform; All Gold Canyon, in which an aging gold prospector (Waits) discovers a valley that may just provide him with the strike he’s being hoping for; The Gal Who Got Rattled, in which a young woman (Kazan) travelling to Oregon by wagon train with her brother, finds herself alone and at the financial mercy of an unscrupulous trail hand; and The Mortal Remains, in which a group of travellers on a stage coach discover that their destination may not be exactly the one they’re expecting…
The Coen brothers have apparently been writing Western short stories for years, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs showcases some of those stories, plus one based on a story by Jack London (All Gold Canyon), in a handy compendium sized movie that offers a variety of pleasures for the interested viewer. Each tale or segment is different from the others both in terms of content and approach, though the Coens’ trademark humour can be found in all of them, and each is self-contained and thematically restrained. With no overlaps or need to wonder if a character from one story will pop up in another one, the various tales are linked only by a framing device that depicts each story as part of a volume entitled The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Other Tales of the American Frontier. With this conceit established, the Coens proceed to have a lot of fun with their opening story, with Scruggs breaking the fourth wall and taking part in a series of shootouts that are ingeniously and very cleverly staged (the confrontation between Scruggs and Clancy Brown’s poker player is simply genius). There’s more physical humour to be found in Near Algodones, and though it is funny to watch, it’s the slightest of the six tales on offer.
The tone changes completely with Meal Ticket, and the story ends on a dark note that is a little uncomfortable, as commerce and altruism make for uneasy bedfellows (kudos too to the special effects work that makes Harrison’s limbless nature so convincing). Another switch is provided by All Gold Canyon, practically a solo performance by Waits and supported by some of the most stunning natural scenery seen in any movie this year. It speaks towards determinism and self-will, and like its predecessor, provides a wry commentary on the hardships of frontier life. Perhaps the most fully realised and affecting of all the stories is The Gal Who Got Rattled, which skillfully blends comedy and romance into its narrative, and which features a terrific performance from Kazan as an innocent abroad whose naïvete eventually gets the better of her (be warned: there are illustrations that accompany the stories in the framing device, and this one hints strongly at the story’s outcome). And lastly, The Mortal Remains sees the Coens ending the movie with a tale that strictly speaking isn’t related to the Old West or the frontier, but will be familiar to anyone who enjoys tales of the macabre or supernatural. All in all, the Coens have taken a chance in combining so many disparate stories within one movie, but such is their control over the material, and their confidence in their abilities as writers and directors, that as a result, it’s a movie that works exceptionally well throughout, and has much to offer – even for those who don’t like Westerns.
Rating: 8/10 – a compendium of stories that each hold their own, and which offer different narrative rewards, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an affectionate tribute to the Old West from a couple of writers/directors who clearly have a fascination for the period and its hardships; very funny in places, and with a dramatic flair to match, the movie sees the Coens back on form after the perceived stumble of Hail, Caesar! (2016), and showing that there’s still life in the Old West if you know where to look.