The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs 2018

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

I’ll start with a disclaimer – I love Westerns. There are particular old titles that bring back memories of Saturday matinees in my home town and late night television viewing with my father and older brother. One of my favourite (and most successful) papers written for my university degree was a comparative analysis of The Searchers (1956) and Serenity (2005). So, I came to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs with quite high expectations.

This latest production from the Coen brothers is an anthology of different stories of the American West, loosely linked to the theme of death. I’ve been a fan of their films all the way back to Blood Simple (1984), and in recent years have studied and analysed their movies and even written academic papers about them. Like all bodies of work that extensive, some of their movies speak to me more than others.  Similarly, anthologies always have stronger and weaker segments and I have to confess that some of these vignettes left me wanting more and a couple didn’t really speak to me at all.

Let’s start with the strengths. The cast is uniformly solid, which is vital with such a wide-ranging film but there are standouts. Tim Blake Nelson is excellent in the titular role and looks like he’s having a lot of fun. Similarly, Tom Waits as the Prospector in “All Gold Canyon” and Liam Neeson as the Impressario in “Meal Ticket” are great but Harry Melling in “Meal Ticket” and Zoe Kazan in “The Gal Who Got Rattled” are outstanding.

Melling is unrecognisable from the obnoxious Dudley Dursley of the Harry Potter films and delivers everything with his expressive face and eyes. Kazan brings something quite special to the girl who finds herself abandoned and trying to take control of her life on a wagon train. I was reminded of a previous Coen film True Grit (2010) with references here to the Midnight Caller story. Framing in this vignette especially is pure homage to John Ford and at times it also reminded me of one of my favourite revisionist westerns, Meek’s Cutoff (2010)

As much as I enjoyed these performances though, it’s the ensemble in the final story, “The Mortal Remains” that had the biggest impact on me. Jonjo O’Neill, Saul Rubinek, Chelcie Ross, the ever reliable Brendan Gleeson and the wonderful Tyne Daly worked perfectly in a dark dreamscape that seemed to me like John Ford’s Stagecoach meets Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.

On the downside, I found the CG in some of the earlier pieces annoying and at times, downright clunky – to the point that it took me out of the stories. And I have to say, the first two stories, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” and “Near Algodones” really didn’t work for me despite solid performances.

While I believe this did get a limited theatrical release in the UK, the rest of the world is only able to watch it on Netflix. We are living in a fascinating and exciting time for new platforms and methods of film distribution. I sincerely hope it will enable more people to view different movies (particularly independent and foreign language cinema). But once again, as much as I love being able to stream films at home (I’m truly grateful for Netflix and MUBI) I’d have liked the option to be able to see this in a cinema and I have to wonder if some of my issues with the computer graphics would have been assuaged.

Nevertheless, if you like westerns (traditional or revisionist) this is well worth watching!