THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS. Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. With Tom Waits, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Tim Blake Nelson and Tyne Daly. Netflix.
KAREN RUTTER reviews
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is essentially a Greek tragedy, but in English. With cowboys. And a sense of humour. Like if Euripides and Sergio Leone had to workshop a screenplay, and then asked Tina Fey to get involved.
This latest offering from Joel and Ethan Coen is made up of six short stories, not linked in any obvious way except that they’re all set in the American Wild West. They’re purportedly drawn from an old book of Western tales and indeed, as each yarn ends and the next begins, we are shown a page being turned. But beyond the styling and setting, this is the West as shown by a very different hand to, say, Kevin Costner’s dilettante dalliance in Dances with Wolves.
Each story has a uniquely surreal and darkly comedic edge, mostly with something disastrous happening to its lead character. The swift pace of each mini-plot ensures a fast and often shocking intervention by fate, resulting in multiple fatalities. It shouldn’t sound funny, but it really is.
There’s the singing assassin who has a nifty way with his six shooter – the Buster Scruggs of the title, played with whimsical charm by Tim Blake Nelson. Then James Franco takes a turn as a bank robber with a shitload of bad luck in Near Algodones. Liam Neeson and an unrecognisable Harry Melling (famous for playing the obnoxious Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films) share an uneasy relationship as an impresario and his thespian sidekick in Meal Ticket, while Tom Waits (also unrecognisable) plays a grizzled prospector panning for “Mister Pocket” – a gold motherlode – in All Gold Canyon. In The Gal Who Got Rattled, the most tragic of all the stories (and believe me each has its moment – I’m just not going to spoil things here), a young woman and a wagon train leader form a tentative, sweet bond. And finally, a coachload of strangers (including ex-Cagney and Lacey star Tyne Daly) share some personal insights, in The Mortal Remains.
The casting is as much of a delight as the offbeat narrative, while the presentation is impeccable. Whether it’s a posse of roughnecks slinging back shots in a saloon, or a caravan of settlers making their way across the prairie, the attention to detail never wavers. And neither does the directors’ sure feel, keeping a fine balance between drama and dark humour.
Apparently the movie was originally tipped to be a mini-series, but all parties involved finally reckoned it would work best as a long form movie. It was released in August 2018, just in time to pick up a Best Screenplay award at the Venice Film Festival, and after a short theatrical season, has been released on Netflix.
And it’s unlike any Western you would have seen before. Yippee ki-yay …
What: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs