The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Year: 2018
Production Co: Annapurna
Studio: Netflix
Director: Ethan Coen/Joel Coen
Producer: Ethan Coen/Joel Coen/Megan Ellison
Writer: Ethan Coen/Joel Coen
Cast: Tim Blake Nelson, Clancy Brown, David Krumholtz, James Franco, Stephen Root, Ralph Ineson, Zoe Kazan, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Brendan Gleeson, Saul Rubinek,, Tyne Daly

The last time the Coen brothers did a Western (True Grit) I was surprised by how accessible and mainstream it was. I knew a little about this movie before I watched it, but I thought it'd be a very high quality love letter to the motifs of Westerns they've internalised as fans of the genre and be much too smart and cineliterate for the likes of me.

Couldn't be further from the truth. The first vignette, the one that's actually about the titular gunslinger and singer (Tim Blake Nelson) is so full of mugging, slapstick and comedy it's almost a Looney Tunes cartoon.

You never really know who the character of Buster is – and maybe you're not supposed to. He's a grinning idiot who sings ridiculous songs and when you start out thinking he's going to be a complete dolt, his skills as a marksman, his ninja-like handling of himself in a tight spot and his willingness to kill are kind of shocking. You then think he's going to end up some kind of Old West Terminator... until he abruptly doesn't.

The rest of the stories in this compilation are all very different and very identifiable with the tropes we know from Western movies, and some of them are far better than others. There's one about Tom Waits as a gold prospector who gets set upon by another man that took so long and said so little it was pointless. Another, with Zoe Kazan as a young woman crossing the country in a wagon train, has a lot more going on but has sucha bleak, nihilistic ending it reminded me of Grave of the Fireflies.

There's a quippy and funny one with James Franco as a luckless bank robber, another one that turns decidedly dark with Liam Neeson as a travelling showman who's partner is an armless, legless man that recites Shakespearian poetry and one of a disparate group of people travelling in a train carriage arguing over ethics and morals.

None of it really adds up to much narratively, it's just a collection of short stories, some more successful than others. That said, the Coens couldn't make a bad movie if they tried. The design and location work evoke what it would look like if chintzy modern Western stories actually happened in the real Old West, and the Coens have a Tarantino-like command over the choreography within a frame and of a scene.

How much you respond to it will depend more on how much of a Coen fan you are than a Western fan.

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