Joel and Ethan Coen take the saddle in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a six-part love letter to the Hollywood West that plays the genre’s most beloved tunes with barely a note out of place.
The Coen brothers, if nothing else, remain some of filmmaking’s finest pranksters. Or perhaps trolls would be a better word? Either way, the latest paradoxical instalment in their tragicomic oeuvre, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, arrived on Netflix today; a six-part anthological feature wherein each story forms a chapter in an illustrated clothbound volume, and the tone lurches predictably from absurdist fantasia to grim historical authenticity.
The first story sees a smarmy Tim Blake Nelson as the title character, cheerily singing songs and twirling six-shooters as his fourth-wall-breaking philosophising clashes with outbursts of bloody violence. In the second James Franco plays a bank robber who finds himself at the end of both a noose and a wry joke. The third tale sees Liam Neeson as a gruff impresario who lugs around a limbless orator (Harry Melling) and forces him to read Ozymandias and the Gettysburg Address. Tom Waits digs for gold in the fourth story; Zoe Kazan finds love on the Oregon Trail in the fifth. The climax is an odd and chilly conversation between five strangers on a stagecoach.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a refreshingly apolitical film, less concerned with mining the Old West for social commentary than pulling faces at classics and contemporaries of the studio Western. It isn’t an insightful film so much as a playful one, though it does cruelty and unpleasantness about as well and frequently as it does anything else. It riffs on the aesthetic and storytelling modes that have defined and redefined Hollywood’s oldest genre and flaunts the Coens’ wriggly dialogue and sharp craftsmanship to great and varied effect. And while the tone and pace ebb and flow with the ballad’s peculiar rhythms, none of the sections stand out as weak links or ill-fitting contributions to the bizarre overall concoction.
The Coens have made some bewilderingly terrible films, and also some near-masterpieces. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is neither. But it leans more towards the profligate heights of their better work, and even if it can’t quite reach them, their existential bamboozling remains endlessly fascinating and watchable. That’s more than you can say for most.