The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Coens' cruel anthology western begins with a blistering energy, but becomes more ponderous with each chapter

Film Review by Caitlin Quinlan | 10 Nov 2018
  • The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Film title: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Zoe Kazan, Tom Waits, Liam Neeson
Release date: 16 Nov

As the titular quick-firing, tune-warbling Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) would tell you in this new offering from the faithful Coen brothers, life in the Wild West is all about “singin’ and slingin’ guns”. His sentiment echoes throughout his own ballad, and those that follow, in the writing-directing siblings' collection of comic fables and dark tales, each with their own unfortunate heroes from across the American frontier.

From Buster himself, twanging his guitar on the open road and finding trouble, to a dedicated prospector (Tom Waits) digging for gold or an opportunistic impresario (Liam Neeson) seeking his next star, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has a wealth of bold, inventive characters to explore. These little vignettes ruminate on life, death, luck, misfortune, community, greed and all the bleak comedy to be found in the cracks between.

The first and second narratives are blisteringly fun and energetic, but onwards from there the pace slackens enormously. The stories that follow are rich with the Coens’ effortlessly sharp and incisive dialogue, and packed with the softer nuances of the film’s ponderings on mortality, but they feel stiffer, heavier, and at times a lot more tedious to watch. The fifth chapter with Zoe Kazan is uninspiring and disappointing, a lacklustre damsel-in-distress marriage plot that seems a dull, predictable use of one of only two female cast members.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has plenty to admire and enjoy, but it does seem to falter after its delightful opening. It becomes difficult to stay engaged with the fragments as stand alone pieces, as well as part of the cohesive whole, and so perhaps, in the end, these tales would have been better served as part of an anthology series as originally intended rather than a feature film.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is released on Netflix 13 Nov

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