Stars and cameos be damned; the Coen Brothers turn in another stunner.
No matter the screen, the Coen Brothers are going to be the Coen Brothers and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is that at its best. Dense, cryptic dialogue paired with gallows humor simmers throughout. A common mistake could be considering Scruggs a revisionist western, but there’s plenty to dissect.
Told in a six-part anthology, each vignette explores the different clichés and tropes of the genre. The choice to deconstruct the western mythos explains why the Coens opted to make this a film compared to a series. As with recent westerns, the film is both parts epic and sparse and is shot beautifully.
Make no mistake, Tim Blake Nelson is the star in a film full of stars and takes center stage on the titular, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. One-part western ballad throwback, one equal part Tex Avery Merry Melody, Buster relishes every chance to break the fourth wall and fire his gun. The Coen’s have been known to break out a musical number as far back as The Big Lebowski, but this opener might be their best. James Franco headlines “Near Algodones” which ends as quickly as it starts to put it nicely. “Meal Ticket”, is delightful with Liam Neeson as a traveling entertainer partnered with an orator who happens to be limbless (Harry Melling) to be his peculiar attraction. The juxtaposition of those two is a classic Coen Brothers pairing that could’ve been a film.
Tom Waits plays Tom Waits to perfection in “All Gold Canyon.” As a prospector who is convinced that there is indeed gold in the land that displays “no sign of man, nor the handiwork of man.” Zoe Kazan holds down the fort as the sole female character in the entire film as “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” Kazan joins the Oregon Trail and develops a tentative at best friendship with Billy Knapp (Bill Heck). The film concludes with “The Mortal Remains,” in which three disparate passengers in a stagecoach realize that the two men sitting across from them (the always great Brendan Gleeson, and Jonjo O’Neill) may not be the undertakers they claim.
As usual with a Coen Brothers film, the actors can reach the depth necessary to tap into these wonderful characters. Scrugg’s smile never slips, even while leading a saloon in a song about a rival whose harrowing death should prove otherwise. Stephen Root shows up for an amusing cameo in “Near Algodones” and Harry Melling is compelling and heart-breaking in “Meal Ticket.” The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is great in its entirety but is also digestible as a segment at a time. Either way, you’re in for repeated viewings.