The Ballad of Buster Scruggs review – the Coens' brutal salute to the western

James Franco, Liam Neeson and Tom Waits traipse across the prairie in a lovingly crafted collection of vignettes spattered with bloody violence and inky humour

The Coens have given us a hilarious, beautifully made, very enjoyable and rather disturbing anthology of stories from the old west, once planned for television but satisfyingly repurposed for the cinema: vignettes that switch with stunning force from picturesque sentimentality to grisly violence. There’s barely a forehead that doesn’t get a bullet in it sooner or later. One or two of the stories don’t have a satisfying twist in the tail; there is one disconcerting fade-out.

Each tale is prefigured with the sight of an old book, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. A hand turns the pages and we see these stories in print, themselves prefaced by an illustrated plate previewing a dramatic incident from what’s to come. Remembering and recognising this moment is a stab of audience-interest for each particular episode. More text is also shown again at the end of each story: you are given just enough time to read some of it – and one in particular appears to tell us something more, something that happens after the story ends on screen. Could a sequel or spinoff be in prospect?

Tim Blake Nelson – that longtime Coen repertory player – stars in the opening story as Buster Scruggs, a crooning cowpoke, lonesome singer and icily assured gunslinger who maintains an easily good-humoured, if rather sociopathic down-home courtesy, no matter what stomach-turning events are happening around him. While he’s strumming his guitar, the Coens give us a shot of the inside of his instrument, looking out through the sound-hole.

James Franco plays a bank robber who miraculously avoids justice; his remark to a fellow miscreant got the biggest laugh I’ve heard in a cinema this year. Liam Neeson is a travelling theatrical impresario, a boisterous Ulster Protestant whose star turn is his “wingless thrush”: an unfortunate young man without arms or legs but with a wonderful way of declaiming Shelley and the Gettysburg Address.

Tom Waits plays a Walter Huston-type gold prospector who gets into a terrible scrape. And Tyne Daly is a righteous lady on a stagecoach who finds herself confronted with moral turpitude in the form of two bounty hunters seated opposite: the most Tarantinoesque moment in a pretty Tarantinoesque film. The most heart-rending figure is the unmarried young woman, played by Zoe Kazan, who joins a wagon train, hoping to make a new life for herself in Oregon.

This is a handsomely made picture, with a richly plausible musical score by Carter Burwell; it is an old-school western in many ways and if there is something comic or self-satirising about it, this doesn’t mean it is pure pastiche. There is a commitment to the genre, although the sheer eerie starkness of what is shown has an ironising effect: tiny individual figures making their way through gigantic or iconic landscapes, tiny bars or banks marooned in the middle of the prairie, looming up like mirages. The settlers are always in danger from Native Americans, who are certainly represented as an alien presence – they don’t get a tale – but the white men and women are mostly venal, pompous, greedy and violent.

The performances are polished to a gleam: Neeson is great as the huckster, brooding on the awful change he might need to make to his show; Kazan plays it entirely straight as the young woman whose life is about to be turned around and Blake Nelson is superb as the roistering Buster, who thoughtfully imagines what it’s going to be like in heaven looking back at “all the meanness in the used-to-be”. Earthly existence is eventful and not short on laughs.

  • The Ballad of Buster Scruggs premiered at the Venice film festival. It will be released by Netflix in November.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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