London Film Festival 2018 Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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Director: Joel and Ethan Coen

R | 2h 12min | Comedy , Drama , Musical | 16 November 2018 (USA)

Playing London Film Festival 2018

RATING: ★★★☆☆

The Coen Brothers return to the American West in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which has the unusual honour of being their first Netflix-backed project, and an anthology film that spun out of an aborted larger TV series. Collecting six unconnected stories of eccentric misadventures, punctured pomposity, and sudden and often inelegant deaths out on the frontier in the 19th century, Scruggs is an unmistakably Coen-esque project that retains their rarified atmosphere of morbid quirkiness, good-natured and critical homages, and genuine left-field turns all mixing together.

Each tale is laced with the sense that fate is shaking its head at all these pitiful humans trying futilely to keep on top of things through either short cuts or sticking fast to the straight-and-narrow. An always visually resplendent (DP Bruno Delbonnel and production designer Jess Gonchor have outdone themselves) and very droll meander through a lawless land and time, filled with the kind of pseudo-historical ornate wordplay which the Coen’s deployed in the likes of western True Grit, Scruggs still suffers from the problem that afflicts too many other anthologies: not all the tales come up to the same level in the telling of essentially the Coen-esque truth over and over. The series also misses several opportunities to really take a look at this most American of cinematic landscapes through fresh eyes: none of the tales offer a Native American perspective or feature women heavily (with one exception).

I can’t deny the Coen’s get things off to a bang with the introduction (following, of course, the old chestnut of a framing device of an old book of tales being opened to page one) of the titular character; the rootin’, tootin’, shootin’ white-shirted bandit played with gusto and a mile-thick drawl by Coen regular Tim Blake Nelson. Nelson leaps off the screen from the minute we see him, crooning away with a guitar in hand (we even get a shot from INSIDE the guitar) about his life lessons direct to the audience atop his steed ‘Dan’, whose neighs he uses to punctuate his homilies as he rides through a gorgeously-lensed backdrop. This turns out to be no less than the classic Western movie locale of Monument Valley. Ravishing production design and eye-popping locations - plus some neat visual flourishes like having Buster’s dusting off of his clothes create a sort of tracer outline behind him - co-exists with a steady acceleration to warp speed of every western cliche, as a trip by a parched Buster to a tiny, quaint watering hole literally in the middle of nowhere degenerates into a zany and very bloody shootout. Buster subverts expectations by revealing he is a steely-eyed badass simply hiding in the outer shell of a deep-fried gawping bumbler. Flamboyantly spinning pistols and sometimes shooting blind, Buster takes down five swarthy opponents with ease whilst chirping away to us the viewer, then decamps to a nearby town where the upmarket saloon/hotel/poker den is packed with floozies and gambling hawks.

Here the Coen’s display their deft skill once more at crafting moments of absurd, sharp violence, as Clancy Brown’s aggrieved poker playing thug takes a disliking to Buster and throws down on him, with Buster defeating his opponent by simply kicking up the gaming table between them so its central plank flies up and jerks his opponent’s drawn gun upwards to fire fatally into his own chin. “I consider that a form of suicide actually’ Buster cheerily informs the dead man’s brother, who naturally challenges Buster to a revenge showdown out in the dusty, long main street which sees him lose all five of his fingers before a final blind fired sixth shot leaves him laid out. The violence is funny but always a little unsettling.

This violent idiosyncrasy all proceeds at a pleasingly frenetic pace, like a vaudeville musical with lots of theatrical headshots, only to come to an abrupt end as Buster finally finds the bullet with his name on it at the hands of a dandified pistoleer with an intricate set of shoulder holsters and an equally fine singing voice. Buster accepts his fate of course: there is always going to be a fresher, fresher, faster gun coming up behind you. Ignoble ends and failed purposes are the fate of most of the characters in the tales that follow too, but sadly few of them have the same verve or sense of focus in delivering the message, even if each is its own elegant jewellery box of a micro-world that it is hard not to want to get lost in for a week or two. There is a sense of drift, and some tales belabour their points a little. In Near Algodones, James Franco’s wannabe bank robber gets his due and then some in a fast-moving madcap tale that doesn’t outstay its welcome, which features a fun sort of steampunk-y reversal of a standard bank robbery as the weaselly bank clerk that Franco sticks up turns out to have an arsenal of rifle traps and even a homemade suit of pot-and-pan armour at his disposal. Constantly ambushed or captured, Franco’s Cowboy goes through about three different hangman’s nooses in a day. More sombre though a tad one-note is Liam Neeson starrer Meal Ticket, a gothic tale about a travelling magic show man who’s star act is a quadruple amputee who only speaks in the verses he has rehearsed. Tom Waits mines for a rich seam in All Gold Canyon, a vibrant valley location and Wait’s surly grunts and groans do well to emphasise the single-mindedness that led men to churn up the American landscape in the search for the shiny stuff, even if the story ends unsurprisingly.

Zoe Kazan is the only notable female presence in The Gal Who Got Rattled which is set out on the prairie during a long ride to Oregon, but the oddly sweet romantic story still feels too sedate and reliant on the tired cute dog cliche, whilst the capsule tale The Mortal Remains feels truncated and missing a real oomph moment despite ending in an atmospheric gloomy mansion which remains one the of the many visual highlights. Anticlimaxes abound in each and this might frustrate, but that is the Coen’s worldview. A mixed bag then, but a mixed bag of Coen nuts is always going to be worth rooting through.

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Owen Van Spall

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