The Bal­lad of Buster Scruggs

The Guardian - G2 - - Reviews Film -

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.

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