Netflix are really upping their film offerings of late, on the back of Apostle and Outlaw King comes the latest Coen Brothers flick The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – a western anthology film. Comprised of six short stories, written over the course of 25 years, each with a different tone but all beautifully made, well written and of course very violent.
With No Country For Old Men and True Grit Joel and Ethan Coen’s western credentials were never in any doubt and this captivating collection of short stories adds more fuel to the fire. A dogeared story book opens up to reveal the first story, ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’. A humorous tale, it is the story of the soulful singing and sharp shooting Buster who rides from town to town fighting off any and all challengers to his throne until one fateful day. It is a lighthearted start to proceedings, with Buster played perfectly by Tim Blake Nelson, and worth it alone for the wondrously joyous ditty ‘Surly Joe’. Up next is ‘Near Algodones’ which tells the tale of a cowboy, played by James Franco, whose attempt to rob a bank is just the start of his rotten luck and a rather unfortunate series of events. A comical segment with the funniest line in the film – “first time huh?” – expertly delivered by Mr Franco.
After these two lighthearted and breezy segments comes a gritty tale of sorrow and hardship; ‘Meal Ticket’. We follow Liam Neeson, an aging impresario who travels from far and wide putting on a show with his limbless performer, a stirring Harry Melling (Yes, Dudley from Harry Potter). An oratorical show where the performer dramatically tells many a story be they biblical, historical, poetic or Shakespearean. It is slower and drags on a bit but it is very affecting and comes to a heart wrenching, and very hard to watch, conclusion.
My two favourites vignettes follow; ‘All Gold Canyon’ and ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled’. The former is a glorious story of an old prospector – portrayed by Tom Waits – who bumbles across a beautiful, untouched valley. Believing/hoping they will be gold in them thar hills he sets about the painstaking and arduous search for ‘Mr Pocket’. It is a heartwarming roller coaster ride with excellent acting and wondrous music – courtesy of Carter Burwell – that left a smile on my face ten miles wide.
The latter is about Gilbert Longabaugh and his sister Alice (Jefferson Mays and a mesmerising Zoe Kazan), who are on a waggon train to Oregon towards a new and rather uncertain life, helped along by the train leaders Billy Knapp (Bill Heck) and Mr Arthur (Grainger Hines). This dramatic, captivating and bittersweet segment left me yearning for more, wondering what happened next.
Ending proceedings on a dark and mysterious note is ‘The Mortal Remains’, which is about five strangers on a coach ride to Fort Morgan and, err, that is about it. Whilst it may sound dull it is engrossing, as each characters personality get drawn out via a wide ranging conversation which touches upon life, death, love, sin, gambling and the human condition. The interplay between the disparate personalities is great, in particular the English bounty hunter and the uptight Lady Betjeman – played by Jonjo O’Neill and Tyne Daly respectively.
Whilst some may be put off by the lack of an overarching plot or message, this does not stop it being an entertaining, beautifully shot and excellently acted collection of short stories that manages to be simultaneously funny, serious and moving.