The Bal­lad of Buster Scruggs

The Observer - The New Review - - Sfiulmbject -

(133 mins, 15) Di­rected by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen; star­ring Tim Blake Nel­son, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan

Is The Bal­lad of Buster Scruggs a TV show or a film? Con­ceived as a col­lab­o­ra­tion with An­na­purna Tele­vi­sion, dis­trib­uted by Net­flix and com­pris­ing six short­ish vi­gnettes, on pa­per, Joel and Ethan Coen’s lat­est project seems like the for­mer, though it func­tions as the lat­ter. All six parts are western-themed, and in­deed a lin­eage can be drawn be­tween this film and the Coens’ pre­vi­ous fron­tier ex­cur­sions, in­clud­ing Blood Sim­ple (1984), No Coun­try for Old Men (2007) and True Grit (2010).

Yet the way the mood of these in­di­vid­ual para­bles shifts be­tween comic (The Bal­lad of Buster Scruggs) and tragi­comic (Meal Ticket, in which Harry Melling’s arm­less, leg­less ac­tor is out­shone by a clever chicken), throw­away (Near Al­go­dones) and lin­ger­ing melan­choly (The Mor­tal Re­mains), makes more sense when you con­sider the scope of the directors’ wider fil­mog­ra­phy. As far as I can tell, these shorts have as much in com­mon with the wea­ried soul of In­side Llewyn Davis (2013) or the play­ful, hap­haz­ard Hail, Cae­sar! (2016) as they do with the Coens’ genre ex­er­cises.

Which is to say, stream­ing or big screen, this is still a Coen broth­ers film, an­chored by an all-star cast of hun­gry, op­por­tunis­tic an­ti­heroes in­clud­ing Tim Blake Nel­son’s gui­tarstrum­ming gun­slinger Buster Scruggs, James Franco’s bum­bling bank rob­ber (Near Al­go­dones) and Tom Waits’s re­lent­less prospec­tor (All Gold Canyon, my favourite episode). The seg­ments are un­even: Zoe Kazan’s op­ti­mistic sin­gle­ton gets the most screen time in That Gal Who Got Rat­tled, a love story that feels more com­plete than its companions and yet un­fin­ished in this an­thol­ogy for­mat.

Still, the variety mostly works, with the bright, hy­per­real greens and pranc­ing wood­land crea­tures of All Gold Canyon a welcome con­trast to the moody neon blues in The Mor­tal Re­mains’s grim-reaper car­riage ride, its one-way pas­sage led by Brendan Gleeson.

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