The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: LFF Review

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: LFF Review
The peerless Coen brothers make their Netflix debut with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a six-chapter anthology Western film set in a time where death and grim irony are the only certainties. The six unconnected stories are naturally a mixed bag, as such movies always are. The variance in quality, however, swings only from the good to the sublime.   The first story, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” features Tim Blake Nelson as Scruggs, a folksy gunslinger and guitar player who saunters from place to place spewing folksy witticisms and creating easy carnage. The Coens’ spectacular, idiosyncratic old-timey dialogue is deployed with pitch-perfect spark and originality. The short has supposedly been decades in the making; the duo had clearly used that time to hone the script to perfection. Every line, every visual gag lands flawlessly, and the three musical numbers are all fantastic. Even coming from the directors of The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, this segment is quite possibly the finest 20 minutes (or so) of comedy the Coens have done.  It is little surprise, then, that the rest of the film doesn’t quite reach the same levels of exuberant delight. James Franco stars in a terrific segment called “Near Algodones,” an alternately hilarious and thrilling story about a bank robbery gone awry. Liam Neeson is in “Meal Ticket”, the slowest of the tales, a bitterly amusing story of two travelling entertainers which ambles towards an end so blackly miserable you can’t help but smile.  Tom Waits is almost unrecognisable as a slightly crazy gold prospector, out to find his riches in “All Gold Canyon”. The longest of the episodes, “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” is a more sentimental story set around a wagon trail, and stars the excellent Zoe Kazan as a woman travelling cross-country towards an unknown future. By this point in the film, however, the Coen brothers’ morbidity has taken over. The shorts grow progressively darker as they tunnel towards the end, and the final story, “The Mortal Remains” is a ghoulish take on The Hateful 8’s stagecoach ride, a funny and sinister conversation between strangers with paranoid metaphysical undertones.  The only negatives, really, are extratextual. In this day and age, it is problematic for filmmakers like the Coens to fill so large of a film with so many white men. Kazan is the only major female role (and one of only two named female characters), and the cast is exclusively white, bar some incoherently violent Native American attackers. James Franco, the subject of several recent harassment allegations, is hitting a career peak in 2018, working with America’s great cinema auteurs here, and with TV legend David Simon in The Deuce.  As the Coens grow older, their already first-rate craft has sharpened. Their dialogue is slicker, their sense of timing more attuned. But they are also outdated in their approach to representation, and seem unwilling to adapt. The brothers, now 61 and 63 years old, have spent their careers dismantling the stupidity and hubris of the white American male. It is, however, increasingly clear they are unable or unwilling to offer alternative perspectives, and Buster Scruggs does nothing to suggest otherwise.  Representation issues aside, however, the film is a riot, and a real coup for Netflix, even though the film’s superb cinematography and Carter Burwell score are much better-suited to the big screen. Paying tribute to so many arms of the Western genre, Buster Scruggs is also its own unique thing, distinctive in its wit, charm and gradual bone-deep melancholy.

5/5

Image: Netflix
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