The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
recognising this moment is a stab of audience-interest for each particular episode. More text is also shown again at the end of each story: you are given just enough time to read some of it – and one in particular appears to tell us something more, something that happens after the story ends on screen. Could a sequel or spinoff be in prospect?
Tim Blake Nelson – that longtime Coen repertory player – stars in the opening story as Buster Scruggs, a crooning cowpoke, lonesome singer and icily assured gunslinger who maintains an easily good-humoured, if rather sociopathic down-home courtesy, no matter what stomachturning events are happening around him. While he’s strumming his guitar, the Coens give us a shot of the inside of his instrument, looking out through the sound-hole.
James Franco plays a bank robber who miraculously avoids justice; his remark to a fellow miscreant got the biggest laugh I’ve heard in a cinema this year. Liam Neeson is a travelling theatrical impresario, a boisterous Ulster Protestant whose star turn is his “wingless thrush”: an unfortunate young man without arms or legs but with a wonderful way of declaiming Shelley and the Gettysburg Address.
Tom Waits plays a Walter Hustontype gold prospector who gets into a terrible scrape. And Tyne Daly is a righteous lady on a stagecoach who finds herself confronted with moral turpitude in the form of two bounty hunters seated opposite: the most Tarantinoesque moment in a pretty Tarantinoesque film. The most heart-rending figure is the unmarried young woman, played by Zoe Kazan, who joins a wagon train, hoping to make a new life for herself in Oregon.
This is a handsomely made picture, with a richly plausible musical score by Carter Burwell; it is an old-school western in many ways and if there is something comic or self-satirising about it, this doesn’t mean it is pure pastiche. There is a commitment to the genre, although the sheer eerie starkness of what is shown has an ironising effect: tiny individual figures making their infinitesimal way through gigantic or iconic landscapes, tiny bars or banks marooned in the middle of the prairie, looming up like mirages. The settlers are always in danger from Native Americans, who are certainly represented as an alien presence. But the white men and women are mostly venal, pompous, greedy and violent.
The performances are polished to a gleam: Neeson is great as the huckster, brooding on the awful change he might need to make to his show; Kazan plays it entirely straight as the young woman whose life is about to be turned around, and Blake Nelson is superb as the roistering Buster, who thoughtfully imagines what it’s going to be like in heaven looking back at “all the meanness in the used-to-be”. Earthly existence is eventful and not short on laughs.