LFF 2018 The Ballad of Buster Scruggs Review
A lot has been said recently about the status and quality of Netflix original movies. Whilst their TV serials have been celebrated by both audiences and critics, films that are released directly to Netflix carry a kind of expectation to them not unlike those of the direct to video films of the 80s and 90s; that if that’s how it’s being released then it can’t be very good. It’s an unfair assumption, as there have been some real gems in the Netflix catalogue released over the last few years. Annihilation was a fascinating and trippy science fiction experience, and Hush is probably one of the best home invasion films since The Strangers.
Joel and Ethan Coen are undeniably one of, if not the, greatest writer-director units working in film today and even in some of their weaker films their ability to create character and dialogue is something to see. Their work with Netflix was originally intended to be a six-part anthology series but was edited into a feature for its premiere at the Venice Film Festival where it won the Golden Osella Award for Best Screenplay. So, is The Ballad of Buster Scruggs an awkwardly stitched together mess or the film that will make the naysayers finally take Netflix original movies seriously? Well the answer is probably neither, but it is a whole lot of fun.
The Coens have a knack for the comic with a touch of tragedy or the tragic with a touch of comedy. Here we get the full spectrum of that to different degrees, over the six stories set in the Old West. These include the titular The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Near Algodones, Meal Ticket, All Gold Canyon, The Gal Who Got Rattled, and The Mortal Remains. With The Ballad... at the more comedic and absurd end and Meal Ticket and The Gal Who... at the other. Essentially there is a Coens' style to suit everyone here, and certainly all the segments, whilst difference in tone, have that same quality of writing that we have come to expect from the pair.
The cast assembled is a great one. Tim Blake Nelson as Buster Scruggs is a lot of fun and may be the best character that the brothers have come up with for some time. Scruggs is an exceedingly upbeat singing cowboy and effortless master gunslinger who narrates his life to the camera in cheerful tones. In Near Algodones James Franco plays a bank robber with ridiculously bad luck in a way that harkens to times of slapstick comedy. Despite moments of absurdity, no part of the movie shies away from the darker side of life, and especially death, in this place and time. Meal Ticket, a near silent affair where a showman played by Liam Neeson parades an armless and legless man around as a performance piece, gets downright morbid, but always well done.
All Gold Canyon, sees Tom Waits as a prospector panning for gold in an idyllic little valley, and the story of a young woman travelling to Oregon in The Gal Who Got Rattled, aren’t necessarily bad or weak stories, and there are certainly interesting things to discuss in each, but both, particularly the latter, drag the pace of the film down to a crawl. Thankfully the film ends on a stronger note with The Mortal Remains, a semi-ghost story type affair as five people in a coach may, or may not, be taking a more final journey. You have to wonder if you’re getting the full Coen Bros. experience if you don’t walk out of one of their movies wondering if a character might have secretly been God or The Devil or some sort of higher power. Brendan Gleeson is great in this segment, especially when he breaks out in a lovely little mournful song, but Jonjo O’Neill steals it out from under him as Gleeson’s business partner and proves himself to be one to keep an eye out for in the future.
On reflection the reworking into a feature has both good points and bad. Whilst I wonder how All Gold... could have filled an hour episode slot and The Gal... would certainly work better as its own separate feature, I would have loved to see more of both the first and last segments just to see what else there was. I don’t see The Ballad of Buster Scruggs becoming anybody’s new favourite Coen Bros. project, but for what it is, it is a very entertaining little collection of stories set in the time of the Old West.