The Ballad of Buster Scruggs review – the Coens go way out in the west

Six accomplished short stories from the western-loving brothers run the gamut from the comic to the downbeat

Is The Ballad of Buster Scruggs a TV show or a film? Conceived as a collaboration with Annapurna Television, distributed by Netflix and comprising six shortish vignettes, on paper, Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest project seems like the former, though it functions as the latter. All six parts are western-themed, and indeed a lineage can be drawn between this film and the Coens’ previous frontier excursions, including Blood Simple (1984), No Country for Old Men (2007) and True Grit (2010).

Yet the way the mood of these individual parables shifts between comic (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) and tragicomic (Meal Ticket, in which Harry Melling’s armless, legless actor is outshone by a clever chicken), throwaway (Near Algodones) and lingering melancholy (The Mortal Remains), makes more sense when you consider the scope of the directors’ wider filmography. As far as I can tell, these shorts have as much in common with the wearied soul of Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) or the playful, haphazard Hail, Caesar! (2016) as they do with the Coens’ genre exercises.

Watch the trailer for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

Which is to say, streaming or big screen, this is still a Coen brothers film, anchored by an all-star cast of hungry, opportunistic antiheroes including Tim Blake Nelson’s guitar-strumming gunslinger Buster Scruggs, James Franco’s bumbling bank robber (Near Algodones) and Tom Waits’s relentless prospector (All Gold Canyon, my favourite episode). The segments are uneven: Zoe Kazan’s optimistic singleton gets the most screen time in That Gal Who Got Rattled, a love story that feels more complete than its companions and yet unfinished in this anthology format.

Still, the variety mostly works, with the bright, hyperreal greens and prancing woodland creatures of All Gold Canyon a welcome contrast to the moody neon blues in The Mortal Remains’s grim-reaper carriage ride, its one-way passage led by Brendan Gleeson.

• The Ballad of Buster Scruggs screens on Netflix from November 16 and is also on theatrical release


Simran Hans

The GuardianTramp

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