Seeing the freedom the Coens had in making this omnibus of Western ‘shorts’ is delightful, though it is a minor work with inherent unevenness.
Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen
2018 | USA | Drama/Comedy/Western | 133 mins | 1.85:1 | English
M18 (passed clean) for some strong violence
Cast: Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Bill Heck, Zoe Kazan, Brendan Gleeson
Plot: Six tales of life and violence in the Old West, following a singing gunslinger, a bank robber, a traveling impresario, an elderly prospector, a wagon train, and a perverse pair of bounty hunters.
Awards: Won Best Screenplay (Venice); Nom. for 3 Oscars – Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Original Song
Subject Matter: Moderate/Dark
Narrative Style: Omnibus/Slightly Complex
Pace: Varying (Normal – Slightly Slow)
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
(Reviewed on Netflix)
The Coens on Netflix? Why not? Only after a month after its Venice Film Festival premiere (where it won Best Screenplay), and their movie is already available worldwide on the popular platform. It is quite rare to see filmmakers do an omnibus-type film, where they are responsible for all the ‘shorts’—one of the most prominent recent examples is Damián Szifron’s Wild Tales (2014), a critical hit from Argentina.
But if there’s anyone who could tackle an anthology of Western shorts and make them distinctively theirs, it would be the Coens. They are certainly no stranger to the genre having remade True Grit (2010). In The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, we see the freedom that these veterans have, allowing them to play by their own rules and experiment with storytelling ideas and structure. It is not the best of results, with inherent unevenness, and not every short (or in this case, chapter of a book) works.
In an almost genteel, feel-good setup, Buster Scruggs begins with the headlining chapter starring Tim Blake Nelson in a cocky, breaking-the-fourth-wall performance. However, it wastes no time indulging in absurd if morbid violence, setting the stage for more bloody carnage to come. The second chapter, “Near Algodones”, with James Franco as a bank robber meeting his comeuppance is also violent and darkly funny.
“Don’t let my white duds and pleasant demeanor fool ya. I, too, have been known to violate the statutes of man… and not a few of the laws of the Almighty!”
The third chapter, “Meal Ticket”, is the weakest, centering on an old travelling entertainer (Liam Neeson) who tries to make ends meet by taking advantage of a storyteller with no arms and legs. It is different from the rest in that we don’t witness any physical violence, only that it is implied. But it is not compelling enough and feels draggy. The fourth chapter, “All Gold Canyon”, sees Tom Waits as a prospector digging for gold. This is a beautiful piece, shot against a serene landscape with some surprising moments.
My favourite is the fifth chapter, “The Gal Who Got Rattled”, which is probably the lengthiest but most fully developed of the sextet. It centers on a convoy of oxen and folks traversing across the dangerous land to another town, but it is more than that. There’s genuine drama in this remarkable piece. Lastly, “The Mortal Remains” features a stagecoach ride with several eccentric folks with long stretches of monologues which are fun to listen to, though it ends in anti-climactic fashion.
Bruno Delbonnel on camera captures a range of visual moods, from the campy to the bleak, and the expansive to the intimate. The Coens’ sharp and off-kilter dialogue remains intact, though as a whole, Buster Scruggs doesn’t quite advance any Western mythology or the genre, nor is it a major work by the duo. But long-time fans will surely enjoy for what it is worth.