Plain, Simple Tom reviews . . . “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” (2018)

The latest film from the Coen Brothers consists of six individual stories set in the old west and has a cast that includes Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Saul Rubinek and Brendan Gleeson – all participating in these short stories which are about, among other things, a singing outlaw, a gold seeking prospector, and a group of strangers in a spooky carriage ride.

To begin with, it’s really strange to see the words “Coen Brothers” and “A Netflix Film” together in the same sentence – surely, the latest release from the popular directing duo warrants a big cinema release (though some were indeed lucky enough to see it on the big screen. Grrr.) Still, having instant access to this latest Coen Brothers film from the comfort of your own living room is nothing to be sniffed at and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a welcome addition to their filmography. A big step up from the disappointing Hail Caesar!, anyway.

The film follows the expected pattern of an anthology series in that some stories are naturally stronger than others; like an average series of Inside No. 9, I’d say that two tales are excellent, two are really good, and two are pretty decent. And despite the different narratives being told, Carter Burwell’s music is of course brilliant, the brothers’ direction is accomplished – managing to blend comedy and contemplative drama as we all know they can – and Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is lovely. But a Coen Brothers film without Roger Deakins? A shame.

The film opens with the titular “Ballad of Buster Scruggs” and it’s the best. In it, Tim Blake Nelson plays Scruggs – a grinning, singing, dancing, guitar playing outlaw who talks to the camera and just happens to be an incredible shot. The film shines brightest here because the story and direction is clever (just look at how he deals with Çurly Joe in the bar- genius!), the Looney Tunes style comedy is always funny, the songs are amazing and Tim Blake Nelson is just a joy to watch – he has an absolute blast with the comedic character and not a single line of dialogue is wasted. This short story is the Coen Brothers going back to O Brother, Where Art Thou? level greatness and the only problem is that it sets the bar too high! Because the level of entertainment and intrigue is only really matched in the final story.

In “Near Algodones”, James Franco plays a bank robber who gets on the wrong side of a crafty teller (Stephen Root), soon finding himself at the mercy of a lynch mob or two, and this story is another humorous one; James Franco gives us some effectively funny faces and Coen Brother regular Stephen Root is delightfully unhinged as the pan wearing bank teller. It’s a humorous little tale but it does end rather abruptly.

In “Meal Ticket”, Liam Neeson plays a travelling impresario who visits several small mountain towns with his act – a man with no arms or legs who recites dramatic readings and bible verses – but as audiences grow scarce and he tires of looking after his companion, he soon starts looking for new opportunities. This one is a slow burner and there’s an intriguing atmosphere and some beautiful night time cinematography on show but the end is slightly unfulfilling, though it does present some worthy messages on the fickle nature of mankind.

Set in an untouched area of land, home to several animals and a particularly watchful owl, “All Gold Canyon” features Tom Waits as an old prospector who digs up the land and pans for gold in the stream. This is one of the stronger stories because it’s the one that most shows off Bruno Delbonnel’s lush cinematography (as well as Carter Burwell’s fine musical accompaniment), there’s a worthy message on the destruction of nature by man, and Tom Waits is a strong one man show – watching him search for and talk to “Mr. Pocket” in that oak-smoked voice of his is just great.

“The Gal Who Got Rattled” is technically the weakest story in my opinion (appearing in that troublesome fifth place in the six part anthology) as the story isn’t particularly strong and, strangely, there’s too much dialogue. It’s about a young woman (Zoe Kazan) who joins a wagon train to Oregon and finds herself in some financial trouble, helped out by some friendly settlers, and I found my interest dipping a little with this one – though it does end on an exciting battle, it’s shot brilliantly, and there’s a truly unexpected twist.

And finally, “The Mortal Remains” closes the film marvellously. It primarily takes place inside a carriage where five strangers – a Frenchman (Saul Rubinek), a lady (Tyne Daly), a trapper (Chelcie Ross), an Englishman (Jonjo O’Neill) and an Irishman (Brendan Gleeson) – are travelling together towards the close of day; it begins quite heartily with a song and an animated discussion about human nature but as the sun begins to set, events take a chilling turn as certain passengers reveal themselves to be part of a particularly nasty business. The best thing about this tale is the gradual change in tone – from a gentle comedy to something genuinely creepy and unsettling – and this is achieved through the slow dimming of the light, some unforgiving closeups, the chilling score, and the creepy performance of one particular cast member. A far cry from the hearty comedy of “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”, this closing tale is masterfully directed, the acting is spot on, the build up of dread is superb, and there’s a powerful theme regarding death and fate included within.

The carriage don’t stop for no-one.

Who needs Deakins, amirite?

Though some are inevitably stronger than others, the Coen Brothers’ entertaining selection of short films look and sound exquisite, there’s a perfect blend of comedy and drama, and the players are strong.

★ ★ ★ ★

One comment

  1. Great review. Just finished some thoughts on this myself and I gotta say I was under its spell from the start. The shifts in speeds between tales can be a bit jarring, but once you’re in tune with what they are doing it is incredibly satisfying. I actually loved “The Girl Who Got Rattled”. It showed a dramatic shift and definitely felt of its own.

    Liked by 1 person

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