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USA 2018
Directed by
Ethan Coen / Joel Coen
132 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
5 stars

The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs

Synopsis: A collection of short films that take place in the American frontier of the 1870s.

As is evidenced by films such as Paris Vu Par…. (1965) and Paris Je T’Aime (2006), portmanteau films don’t usually work. But The Ballad of Buster Scruggs isn’t really that kind of a film. With the Coen brothers writing, directing and co-producing the film benefits from a coherent vision and look, the usual undoing  of portmanteau films.  Even better, the film represent the brothers in fine form, their superlative writing, directorial wit and film-making craftsmanship well evidencing their mastery of the genre film. Some will miss the usual three act narrative form but taken as whole The Ballad of Buster Scruggs stands on its feet as a portrait of the late 19th century Wild West. Indeed this is exactly how the film is introduced by the frontispiece of a marvellous faux antique volume of short stories ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Other Tales from the American Frontier’.

The first story is of Buster Scruggs, a singing cowboy and gun-slinging gambler who affects an all-white wardrobe and has an irrepressible taste for circumlocution (he refers to himself by his "sobriquet of preference, the San Saba Songbird".

Featuring Tim Blake Nelson who had starred in the Coens’ O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) the film is the Coens at their black-humoured best and there will be those who will want more although the next relatively short tale featuring James Franco as an ill-fated bank robber is also wryly amusing and is capped off with a classic-to-be punchline.

The third story, ‘Meal Ticket’, featuring Liam Neeson as a travelling showman, takes a decidedly darker turn but one that is also quite extraordinarily compelling in its inventiveness. Then Tom Waits gives the performance of his screen career as a gold prospector in ‘All Gold Canyon’ which was inspired by a Jack London story. The longest selection, ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled’  has Zoe Kazan (grand-daughter of Elia) as the gal who finds herself alone in the Wild West after her brother suddenly dies and she comes under the wing of Bill Heck as her would-be saviour. Based on a story by Stewart Edward White, a prolific writer who wrote popular stories about the later years of the American Frontier, it is an elegantly composed tale and also the film’s most touching one.

The final story ‘The Mortal Remains’ concerns a pair of, apparently, bounty hunters (Jonjo O’Neill and Brendan Gleeson) transporting one of their meal-tickets aboard a stagecoach with a disparate group of fellow-travellers. Noticeably it is different in style and content, pulling back from it's anecdotal point-of-view to reveal the film's overarching theme, a typically Coen Brothers one - death and its myriad ways. This ties the stories together thematically with the film touching on so many aspects familiar to us from watching Westerns as if we were viewing a superbly-crafted diorama representing for us the mythic days of the Wild West.

With all this and wonderful cinematography (it was shot digitally) by Bruno Delbonnel who was the Coens' DOP for the segment of Paris, Je T'Aime and splendid work by the Coens’ regular collaborators, composer Carter Burwell and production designer Jess Gonchor, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is film to be relished.

FYI: The poker hand (a two-pair of black aces and eights) which Buster Scruggs refuses to play in the saloon is infamously known as "the dead man's hand" as legend has it that was the hand held by Wild Bill Hickock when he was shot in the back of the head and killed by the coward Jack McCall.

If you liked this film be sure to seek out Jacques Audiard’s off-beat Western, The Sisters Brothers,also released in 2018.




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