Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Stars: Tim Blake Nelson, Willie Watson, Clancy Brown, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Brendan Gleeson
The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs is six individual 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. None of these short tales are connected in anyway and there is no Tarantinoesque intertwining themes here.
Surprisingly The Ballad of Buster Scruggs segment also headlines the film and begins light hearted, with comedic tone and a catchy sing song it the local saloon. Tim Blake Nelson plays the singing cowboy who likes to be known as “The San Saba Songbird” and breaks the forth wall every now and then to talk to the viewer. It’s abrupt finale will surprise you but also prepare you for an unexpected piece of storytelling throughout its duration. As the film moves forward it’s tone shifts and reaches some really dark places. Keeping this review as spoiler free is important for anyone experiencing the film for the first time. It’s the little shifts that take place in the storytelling that keep you captivated and wanting to know what is coming next.
In the second segment named “Near Algodones”, a cowboy played by James Franco attempts to rob a bank, but what looked like a simple robbery goes completely wrong and the cowboy wakes up in an awful predicament. For a Coen Brothers film this segment barely has much dialogue and relies on the story and the landscape. If I’ve to take anything from the shortest segment is how quickly things can go downhill for a character in the old west through bad choices.
I’d probably say that the Meal Ticket (The films third segment) is my joint favourite story. Liam Neeson plays an an Impresario who arrives in a town and advertises a show by “Harrison: ‘The Wingless Thrush’ – Celebrated Thespian, Orator, and Entertainer.” The performance is a one-man show by the Artist played by Harry Melling, an actor with no arms or legs. The Artist recites famous segments of Shakespeare and the first showing we see is well received but as the two travel from town to town the numbers are dwindling and Neeson’s character must rethink his strategy to survive. Again I’m not going to reveal any spoilers but what I will say is some of the decisions in this segment are brutal. What I got out of this story was how ruthless some people are to succeed in show business. Ironically, the Impresario also realises how lowbrow he can go to succeed.
All Gold Canyon is my favourite story and is essentially a one-man show by Tom Waits for the most part. It looks like the most invested segment of the film by the Coen Brothers with its stunning scenery and amazing score. Waits performance is excellent as a lone prospector working around the clock to unearth gold from the river. There is moments in this segment that although the prospector is “a ruthless gold digger” show the character has respect for his surroundings and the wildlife around. I nearly hated what I thought was the ending (steady now, no reveals) but thankfully there is a moment that redeems the situation and leaves you satisfied.
The Gal Who Got Rattled (The films fifth segment) is probably the one story that frustrated me the most in its ending. I get this is what the filmmakers where going for and there is a sense of a Romeo and Juliet ending to this one without the love of the two characters in their predicament. Siblings Gilbert and Alice are on route to Oregon but when Gilbert dies of cholera his sister is left with nothing and a $400 debt to a character who runs their wagon named Matt. A kindly cowboy named Billy Knapp in charge if the train becomes friendly with Alice and asks her to Marry him which in turn assumes her debt. As the story develops the trail continue to travel across the landscape and somewhere down the line Alice has wandered off and Billy’s partner Mr. Arthur finds Alice and both are in a situation with Comanche. The Gal Who Got Rattled is the most personal story of the six. The characters are more connected in this segment than the others based on the situation and ruthlessness of the previous stories I understand that. There is a more loving human element to this story that ends in sadness.
The final instalment of the film is titles The Mortal Remains. The story is about Death and ironically no one dies (is that really a spoiler? I’m only telling you something that didn’t happen so not really) The Mortal Remains resembles Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” opening in its setting and dialogue heavy scenes. Appearing in the story is Tyne Daly, Chelcie Ross, Saul Rubenik, Brendan Gleeson and Jojo O’Neill. Although not my favourite segment The Mortal Remains reveals itself as an interesting tale and in places a surreal experience ending to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
Overall an expected enthralling film by the Coen Brothers who utilise the Netflix platform to its maximum capabilities. The service attracts the best filmmakers and actors and the filmmakers have complete control over their work with very little studio interference. A win-win situation for all to be had. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs works for me and I enjoyed all the sections and the characters. What we are presented with is a film by the Coen Brothers who capture the essence of the old west beautifully with stunning visuals capturing the different seasons and settings perfectly, which made me think that each six short film could easily have been made into six feature films. Enjoyable and Highly Recommended.