Review – The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (London Film Festival)

Not even the proven talents of brothers Joel and Ethan Coen can circumvent the issues with the anthology format. Conceived as a Netflix Original Series but turned into a film along the way, the Coen’s Western-inspired The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a series of six short stories which suffers the same problems as almost every other example of its form; it is terribly uneven. When it works, it is an excellent, rip-roaringly enjoyable collection enlivened by the writer-producer-director’s visually splendid and ambitious direction that continues to cement the brothers as two of the strongest voices working in cinema. But when the weaker patches rear their disappoint head, it weighs the entire piece down. It leads to an unbalanced experience held back by its own pacing.

With half a dozen stories from the wild frontier, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is stuffed with a variety of themes, tones and sub-genres; an unconventional amalgamation of ideas that, titular chapter aside, could never individually sustain a full-feature. Delivered here in bite-sized chunks (each story roughly runs between twenty minutes and half an hour), we get to briefly explore the Wild West from a number of angles. Bolstered by the consistently rich visual storytelling from the Coens that sustains even the weaker chapters, their skills are put to great use here as they revisit familiar ground once more.

Let’s break it down a little more.

A barn-storming opening chapter

Opening with the titular chapter, Ballad delivers a barn-storming, crowd-pleasing piece packed with music and laughs that plays like a pure gangbuster; a sheer masterclass in caustic wit that so excellently riffs on and off the wider genre. With the written jokes as sharp and effective as the visual gags, it packs in a laugh-a-minute and nails its quirky identity immediately. An almost unanimous favourite, it showcases the Coens at their utter best. With an exceptionally hilarious performance from Tim Blake Nelson, you find yourself wanting to spend the entire runtime in this faction of the story, marinating in the joy of Buster Scruggs’ sharp-shooting songster.

While not quite at the same level, “Near Algodones“, continues the momentum well, with a satisfying instalment effectively edited and well-performed by James Franco. It’s all about the punchline and it largely succeeds in delivering it when the time comes. Some may argue that it is too similar to the proceeding chapter but these comparisons would have likely been avoided had it been pushed into the backend of the anthology.

“Meal Ticket” spends far too long saying far too little, wasting the talents of Liam Neeson and Harry Melling. The wearisome chapter is constantly on the cusp of making an intelligent point but with repetitive monologues and a duller colour palette that restricts the Coen’s stylistic flair – but is, admittedly, framed rather nicely by the duo’s frequent collaborator and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel – it never springs to life and misses the landing. It lacks the usual crackle of the Coen’s writing, hindered by arriving in the shadow of two spritely chapters.

A mixed bag

Similarly, the fifth story, “The Gal Who Got Rattled”, overstays its welcome. Despite the best efforts of its cast, it ends on a powerful note the proceeding thirty minutes fail to earn. It is rather odd that this piece runs on longest; it feels as close to a fully-developed idea (titular number aside), but it struggles to execute the promise of its premise on screen. Zoe Kazan turns in a lovely performance full of charm but like the characters that populate this tale, it wanders aimlessly. Replaying plot points found in earlier stories without bringing anything new to the table, it seems almost redundant. It’s like we’re going through the motions here.

“All Gold Canyon” succeeds where “Meal Ticket” fails. In finding something thematic depth amongst the darker, more reflective material, enriched by a sturdy, compelling performance from Tom Waits. A beguiling effort strengthened upon reflection – where you can be more appreciative of its slower, more sedate approach – “Gold” manages to make some profound musings on a cyclical existence that finds a contemporary relevance despite its far-flung setting. Matched with some of the most impressive visuals of the bunch – luscious establishing shots and gorgeous scenery are showcased in all their glory – there’s a lot to love in this fourth story.
It’s puzzling that Buster Scruggs ends on “The Mortal Remains”, the least ‘Buster Scruggs‘ of the collection. No doubt an effective piece, a brilliantly atmospheric and gothic slice that infuses the Coen’s witty comedic sensibilities with such sharp, precise writing, bolstered with an array of stellar performance. But whether it truly survives the tonal whiplash is another matter.

It’s jarring, tonally discordant compared to the others as if its fallen through the cracks from another collection. Even visually, it’s far more claustrophobic and stark, absent the sweeping landscape shots and rich aesthetics. Again, that’s not to say its anything approaching bad – just perplexing in that it doesn’t really belong; ironically though, that is one of the leading themes in this particular journey into the timings of death. These Coens are smart, even when they appear to be making a misstep.

In Conclusion: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a mixed bag. Most certainly, the pacing is one of its most pressing issues; the positioning of those first two tales in quick succession is troubling, offering a misrepresentation of the overall film. But there are two great, two good and two underwhelming chapters: a pretty good ratio in all honesty. There is enough to be entertained by, with reliably fantastic direction and a smattering of terrific performances throughout. Buster Scruggs will win most audiences over.

Coen’s anthology piece for Netflix is a bumpy ride but with creators as strong as this, there’s enough to appreciate. Even when you are being yanked through the duller segments part and parcel of the anthology format, you are engaged in the well-crafted world around you. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a bounty for Netflix; while imperfect, it is one of their strongest Originals to date.

3.5/5

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is released through Netflix on November 16th.

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