The Coen brothers have been making westerns their whole career. Whether dealing with the frontier landscape (No Country For Old Men, O Brother, Where Art Thou?), themes of Americana (Fargo), mythmaking (The Big Lebowski) or violent individualism (everything they’ve ever made), the genre has loomed over their work like a wide-brimmed Stetson.
When they gave us a proper western in 2010’s True Grit, the result was brilliant, but frustratingly restrained. With key shots borrowed from the Henry Hathaway original, and much of the famous “Coen dialogue” lifted directly from the Charles Portis novel, it arguably felt more like a skilful exercise in reinvention than a Coen brothers original.
Finally, then, we have the western that we’ve always been teased with – a film as unique, dark, cerebral, witty and cinematic as anything the brothers have ever made, and a genre offering that feels like something no one else could possibly put their name to. What’s more, we get six of them.
Originally imagined as a Netflix series, The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs has since morphed into a single 133-minute anthology film, with six unrelated chapters telling six different stories about life in the weird Wild West.
There’s no framing device (save a hand turning the pages of a hardback book, Winnie The Pooh style) and no vein of continuity running through any of the chapters, expect for the Coens’ usual air of comedy nihilism. Death is everywhere in the world of Buster Scruggs – it’s usually used as the punch line – and the tone only really varies between grimly comic and comically grim.
Setting the tone (and raising the bar) is the film’s opening chapter, “The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs”, which casts Tim Blake Nelson as a grinning, rhinestone bedazzled, singing cowboy – who also happens to be a cold-blooded killer. It’s the funniest and the most surreal that the Coens have been for years – shooting cartoon-sized bullet holes through 1940s archetypes and giving Nelson the most memorable role of his career.
Next up is “Near Algodones”, opening with a botched bank robbery and leaving James Franco on the end of a rope, willing his own horse to stand still. It’s a stark, high-contrast, high-concept desert fable, and the cold dealing of life and death makes for the film’s most amoral tale. Until we get to “Meal Ticket” that is…
Easily the oddest chapter in The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, the third story follows Liam Neeson’s travelling showman from town to town as he restages famous speeches with the help of Harry Melling’s limbless torso propped up on a chair.
Weirdly, balance is (sort of) restored by Tom Waits, who leads “All Gold Canyon” entirely on his own – a lonely prospector digging for gold in a beautifully stripped-back pastoral that says more about the American Dream in fifteen minutes than most other westerns manage after two hours.
Zoe Kazan returns to the Oregon Trail she once rode in Meek’s Cutoff for “The Gal Who Got Rattled” – a stately, perfectly unromantic love story set on the Western plains that complements Kelly Reichardt’s film with a lot less authenticity and lot more black humour, somehow still coming off as the heart of Buster Scruggs.
Finally, “The Mortal Remains” brings us to the end credits in a gothic Stagecoach ride that plays into everything the Coens do best – dropping a group of great character actors (Brendan Gleeson, Tyne Daly, Saul Rubinek) in an odd place and giving them something awful to deal with. Underworld overtones loom large, and this might be as close to horror as the Coens are ever likely to get, but the chapter works best as a dark fable about storytelling itself – a neat, nasty bit of fireside yarn-spinning that makes us remember that we’ve just heard five other tall tales.
In fact, the immersion of Buster Scruggs is probably its best asset – with each chapter good and rich and distinctive enough that you forget it’s not an entire film in its own right. There isn’t a weak story in the bunch (“Near Algodones” is the shortest and lightest, but it’s still terrific) and Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography keeps each one feeling unique and looking strikingly beautiful.
Watching the film is akin to reading a particularly good short story anthology, with every chapter adding another few faces to a bigger tableau of oddballs, murderers, desperate freaks and tragic characters – a postmodern, playful take on How The West Was Won that deals in detail and dialogue to lovingly flip the genre on its head.
This, finally, is the Coen brothers western we’ve been waiting for.