The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’s origins as a Netflix miniseries are obvious to see from its opening seconds, laying out a series of short stories about life and death in the wild wild west.
We all know the anthology’s shortcomings – too little time to establish too many characters, all breadth no depth, and variable quality between chapters. More than anything else, great stories are what make great films, and it’s hard enough finding one never mind six.
Buster Scruggs is no different, bearing all of those flaws, but bearing them lightly. The format allows the Coens to drive home the point that’s defined their filmography – that life is nasty, brutish and short – and perhaps was also the only way they could kill so many featured characters in one film.
The mostly musical opening story featuring Buster himself (Tim Blake Nelson) is a little comic gem, featuring enough cartoonish wit to make you long for a full Coen brothers’ sketch show. It’s followed by some delicious gallows humour from James Franco, and on the other end of the scale, ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled’ is an anxious, sweet love story carving domestic comfort out of a journey to settle out West.
Buster Scruggs is not the Coens’ shooting for the stars, but simply playing in their own little desert sandbox. They try out digital photography for the first time courtesy of DoP Bruno Delbonnel and honestly, the results are astonishing, particularly in Tom Waits’ pastoral gold-digging story. They also test out some of the broadest, strangest and most sentimental ideas they’ve yet put on screen.
Inevitably the results are mixed, but it’s easy to see how these fun experiments could lead to some fascinating new ideas from two of the most consistently brilliant filmmakers around.
CAST: Tim Blake Nelson, Zoe Kazan, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, Tom Waits
DIRECTOR: Joel & Ethan Coen
WRITERS: Joel & Ethan Coen
SYNOPSIS: An anthology western following six different storylines centering on a man named Buster Scruggs.