THE BAL­LAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS

Empire (Australasia) - - On. Screen - DAN JOLIN

DIREC­TORS Joel and Ethan Coen

CAST James Franco, Bren­dan Glee­son,

Bill Heck, Zoe Kazan, Harry Melling, Liam Nee­son, Tim Blake Nel­son, Tom Waits

PLOT Six tales of the West: a gui­tar-play­ing shoo­tist (Nel­son) meets his match; a bank rob­ber (Franco) heads to the gal­lows; a trav­el­ling im­pre­sario (Nee­son) faces wan­ing in­ter­est in his show; a prospec­tor (Waits) digs for gold in an un­spoiled meadow; a young woman (Kazan) takes a fate­ful wagon train jour­ney West with her brother and his dog; and five strangers con­verse on a stage­coach. JOEL AND ETHAN Coen may have grown up in the lawn-fringed sub­urbs of Minneapolis, but they’ve never been far from the Wild West’s vast, stretch­ing vis­tas. From Blood Sim­ple’s Texan set­ting, to their ele­giac ’80s-set take on the Western with No Coun­try For Old Men, to their take on True Grit, to the singing cow­boy seg­ment of their last film, Hail, Cae­sar!, they’re both clearly com­fort­able in the sad­dle.

Not that you’d find ei­ther of them down at the rodeo, or wrestling steers on a ranch. It’s the glow­ing, myth­i­cal West of the big screen that draws them, and that’s never been more ap­par­ent than in The Bal­lad Of Buster Scruggs. Vi­su­alised as a cloth-bound sto­ry­book, with vivid, Fred­eric Rem­ing­ton-style il­lus­tra­tions, the Coens’ 18th movie is a six-part love let­ter to the Hol­ly­wood Western.

Of course, this be­ing Joel and Ethan, there is sub­ver­sion, par­ody and off­beat hu­mour. The open­ing seg­ment un­der­cuts the blue-sky, Tech­ni­color West of the Golden Age with out­bursts of Peck­in­pah- style vi­o­lence, as Tim Blake Nel­son’s war­bling Scruggs de­liv­ers six-shooter head­shots with a big, goofy horse­shoe of a smile. The James Franco-star­ring ‘Near Al­go­dones’ toys with Ser­gio

Leone’s spaghetti tropes, putting a noose around its duster-wear­ing hero’s neck with wry re­sults. ‘Meal Ticket’ — which fea­tures the un­likely dou­ble act of Liam Nee­son and Dud­ley Durs­ley (sorry, Harry Melling) — uses the snowy min­ing-town mi­lieu of Robert Alt­man’s Mccabe

And Mrs. Miller for its al­le­gory about Youtube’s im­pact on cul­ture. And fi­nal chap­ter ‘The Mor­tal Re­mains’ gives

John Ford’s de­fin­i­tive Stage­coach a murky, meta­phys­i­cal twist.

But there is warmth and hu­man­ity to be found amid the generic play­ful­ness. In ‘All Gold Canyon’, Tom Waits’ dogged prospec­tor be­lies the lone­li­ness of his sit­u­a­tion as he ar­rives in bu­colic vir­gin ter­ri­tory and strikes up an ap­peal­ing di­a­logue with ‘Mr Pocket’ — the buried seam of gold he hopes to un­earth. While ‘The Gal Who Got Rat­tled’, the strong­est

seg­ment, weaves a stut­ter­ing, un­ex­pected ro­mance on the Ore­gon trail be­tween Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck, also treat­ing us to one hel­luva gun battle on the sun-bleached prairie.

An­thol­ogy films aren’t to every­one’s taste and you might pre­fer big, three-act meals to bite-sized taster cour­ses, but this is the Coens. While the pe­cu­liar ‘Meal Ticket’ is most likely to test the patience, with Melling as a quad­ri­plegic or­a­tor whose speechi­fy­ing per­for­mance is re­peated al­most ad nau­seam, there isn’t re­ally a weak link. The Bal­lad Of Buster Scruggs spans all the vis­ual flavours of the mythic West, as reimag­ined by two film-mak­ers who pro­foundly un­der­stand its ev­ery inch, from spurs to stet­son.

This entertaining port­man­teau re­minds you Hol­ly­wood’s old­est genre has life in it yet.

VERDICT The Coens take an­other crazy con­cept and make it work with a se­ries of sto­ries that will amuse, shock, and even bring tears to your eyes.

Train of thought: Mr Arthur (Grainger Hines) sur­veys the wagon convoy in the seg­ment for ‘The Gal Who Got Rat­tled’.

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