Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest film is a brilliantly conceived, smartly written and gorgeously shot – on digital, for their first time – anthology Western. Six vignettes, tied by the framing of an unseen reader flicking through a book of ‘tales of the American frontier’, unfold across the two hour runtime, each showcasing the brothers’ innovative flair and talent for vivid characterisation. With its dark humour and light heart, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a symphonic delight.
Gifted the opportunity to shine, a broad cast of well known faces shine in the film, even if most never actually share screen time. Tim Blake Nelson is terrific as fourth-wall-breaking, musical cowboy Buster Scruggs, whilst James Franco brings wit to a bank robber, Zoe Kazan charms as a lost soul, destined solely for marriage, and Liam Neeson scuffles in the role of a greedy impresario. In the final of the set, Brendan Gleeson will warm your heart with a winsome Irish melody but this is small mercy in a film that takes great pleasure in nihilistically undercutting its rampant humour with a venomous bite.
Eacg of these yarns presents at least one twist and, for the most part, all land. First up is the titular tale of Scruggs but within just fifteen minutes the narrative shifts to Franco’s ‘Near Algodones’. It doesn’t do to grow too attached to that one either because parts three – ‘Meal Ticket’ – and four – ‘All Gold Canyon’ are hot on its heals. The fourth is the longest and most developed of the sextet. Based on a 1901 short story by American novelist Stewart Edward White, ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled’ is the sole entry to name more than one of its characters and proves to be the only in which a woman leads. This is followed by an eerie conclusion that plays not unlike an episode of Inside No. 9; that fiercely funny portmanteau series of Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith. There’s a touch of the Tarantino in ‘The Mortal Remains’ too but, as is the case throughout the film, it is undeniably the work of the Coens.
As far as arching themes are concerned, there are a number that could successfully be argued as linking the instalments but only two are absolute – these being that each story is a western in genre and that each brims with the black humour upon which Joel and Ethan have made their careers. Whilst hubris, music and death recur in each of the stories, their narrational differences are belied by a tonal consistency that allows the film to feel like a coherent whole, rather than series of disparate entities.
French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, reuniting with the brothers after Inside Llewyn Davies, does sterling work in capturing the allure of the West – ‘where the distances are great and the scenery monotonous’ – but plays in counterpose to the subtle modernisation of the parables taking place within it. Though the format permits the Coens to unload every trope in the history of Western cinema unto their film, there is a cruelty here and constant sense of political influx.
What really stands out in Buster Scruggs, however, is the verve with which the Coens are still working over thirty years into their career. Allegedly, these stories are accumulations from across that timeframe, yet the assurance that brings them to life is very much contemporary. There are a handful of fabulously inventive, often deceptively small scale, set pieces here and enough meat is applied to ensure that the conclusion of each chapter comes with a twinge of regret; at least two would have fed feature length offerings. The script is sharp, the aesthetics strong and delivery on point. Melancholia has rarely sparkled so.