The Ballad of Buster Scruggs Review – Heart of Cinema

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS

DIRECTOR : JOEL AND ETHAN COEN

CAST : TIM BLAKE NELSON, JAMES FRANCO, TOM WAITS, ZOE KAZAN

The legendary Coen brothers are back with their latest film which is an anthology of six different stories set in the old wild west. The Coens are famous for award winning films such as Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998) and No Country for Old Men (2017). Both Joel and Ethan are now over sixty but show no signs of slowing down. Their latest film features their trademark mix of comedy and violence. The film begins with the opening of a dusty book called The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and we watch enactments of six different stories from the book. Tim Blake Nelson stars as Buster Scruggs in the opening story playing a merrily singing, gun-slinging hotshot with the gift of the gab. This is a deliciously entertaining short story with longtime Coen regular Tim Blake Nelson giving a hilarious performance. A particularly memorable camera shot in the segment looks like it was filmed from the inside of a guitar . The next story features James Franco as a bank robber who ends up receiving a taste of old frontier justice. There are some wicked visual gags here. Next, Liam Neeson plays an impresario whose main act involves a disabled young man (Harry Melling) who recites great speeches and literature. Story three involves crooner Tom Waits giving the most remarkable performance of his film career as a man tirelessly searching for gold. The longest story in the anthology stars Zoe Kazan as a woman who loses her brother and is straddled with his dog. The final story involves five passengers in a horse carriage who engage in a passionate philosophical discussion.

The recurring theme throughout the film is the dog-eat-dog unfairness of the old wild west. For all the romanticisation of the frontier past, this film shows that a society without a firm rule of law and democratic institutions can end up proving costly, if not deadly for everyone. I enjoyed the first two stories which were both humorous and thrilling adventures that did not overstay their welcome. I found the next four stories rather tedious and despite their short length I struggled to hold my interest. The Coens have said these stories have been written by them over the past twenty five years. Each story failed to become a full feature so they took the stories and combined them to make a full feature. The Coens have also denied suggestions that there were any plans for this to be a television series. The film to me comes off much like a collection of B-side singles by a great band. The stories are not up to their usual high standards and have been jumbled together to make a mediocre film. Netflix is the ideal outlet for these stories and I am glad that I didn’t spend time and money watching this at a cinema. There are some entertaining moments in this otherwise unremarkable film. Fans of episodic television may enjoy these stories more than I did. Hopefully, the next Coen brothers film will be more fully realised.

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