Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Screenplay: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: James Franco, Brendan Gleeson, Zoe Kazan, Liam Neeson, Tim Blake Nelson, Tom Waits
Runtime: 133 Minutes
In a way, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs takes the Coen Brothers back to their home video roots in terms of distribution and their first digitally shot feature, while continuing their love affair with westerns, music and the power of the written word. Originally mistaken for a television series for Netflix, their latest project was revealed to be an anthology film based on six Western-themed short stories written by the Coens over nearly two decades, that differ in mood and subject but all ultimately end with a tragicomic twist.
The most memorable of which sees Tim Blake Nelson as the titular character, who wanders from town to town in a slapstick Loony Tunes routine as a kindly but incredibly violent Buggs Bunny dressed like the Milky Bar Kid. It’s fast and loose but as good an entry as any to what’s to come.
The attitudes and pacing vary ensuring that the attention rarely drifts from the screen. They’re all executed well within their own parameters, but it’s the characters and dialogue woven through its storybook structure that keeps the illusion so fetching and entertaining. Two of which border on being genuinely heart-breaking in nature.
The tale of Liam Neeson as an ageing impresario and his artist, a young man with no arms or legs named Harrison (Harry Melling), is a segment so heavily reliant on words and speeches but presented in such an emotionally engaging manner visually that it might as well be silent and have the same effect. Playing on such allegories as the waning interest in substantive media consumption by the masses and the cruelty of human greed.
The longest chapter with Zoe Kazan as a young woman and her blossoming relationship with a well-meaning traveller is something that could easily have been stretched to a full feature, with Kazan delivering one of her best performances. Tom Waits is amusingly cantankerous as an elderly prospector mining for gold and disturbing a peaceful land. James Franco’s tale of a bank robber facing the noose is the shortest and possibly the least substantive but one that ends strong.
The final story might be the most intentionally dialogue heavy instalment, but one that moves at such a conspicuous pace marked by the brisk setting of the sun over the scene as it plays out – the lighting is spectacularly designed throughout but really shines here – that leads to a wonderfully ambiguous reveal of sorts and an unexpectedly chilling final note.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is both a very unexpected turn for the Coen Brothers, but at once so very them in attitude, dressing and that homely sense of dark comedy and dialogue that melts on the tongue as pleasingly as the impeccable cast delivers it.