Buster Scruggs’s (Tim Blake Nelson) eponymous ballad is a simple one, exhorting himself and his horse to keep moving until they find water, or anything at all resembling comfort in the harsh desert plains. This six-story anthology Western by the Coen Brothers (originally planned as a miniseries) paints a picture of untamed America that is frequently unkind, where life is cheap, surreal, and lonely. It’s also frequently laugh out loud funny, combining the trademark Coens macabre comedy with a tone more in line with John Maclean’s amazing Slow West, wringing laughs out of pathos as much as out of random death.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’s TV origins are incredibly obvious, each of its six chapters as separate and distinct as individual episodes of a series. Inevitably, this scattergun approach leads to a fluctuation in quality, but there’s bound to be a few stories in there you like, and at least one that you love. Untimely deaths are one of the few constants in all the vignettes, even the most peaceful one – about an aging gold-hunter. Otherwise, they all take in various corners and climates of the American wilderness and a series of different time periods in the building of the Wild West.
The Coens bookend the film with the best two entries – ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ kicks the action off and ‘Mortal Remains’ sees us home. ‘Ballad’ follows the dapper and tuneful Buster Scruggs as he makes his way through various outposts, constantly getting into trouble he didn’t ask for. Unfortunately for his many assailants, his merry disposition and clean white trousers mask a lightning fast trigger finger and superhuman accuracy. It’s not long before we’re seeing the first of many bullet holes in heads and some grisly comic violence, including one hilarious kill that is the work of true demented genius and earned waves of applause from the Venice audience.
‘Mortal Remains’ proved less of a universal success, but I found to be a perfect, chilling capper to the anthology. Taking place entirely in one carriage ride, it’s inescapably stagy, but uses that to its highly experimental and audaciously imperceptible advantage. Slowly increasing its otherworldliness throughout as Brendan Gleeson’s bounty hunter listens with a disconcerting calm to the raging arguments of his fellow passengers, it’s the very best kind of disorienting. The ending is open to all sorts of interpretation, but I found it to be the perfect postscript to Ballad’s overall worldview.
That these two segments are the best of the bunch, not coincidentally, matches with the fact that they are the most obviously ‘Coen’. The second segment, ‘Near Algodones’, starring James Franco as a very unlucky bank robber, is also a classic, very funny Coen blast, but is over in a flash, with the middle three taking up a lot more time. ‘Meal Ticket’ is the third segment, about a travelling showman (Liam Neeson) and his limbless star (Harry Melling), but it gets bogged down in repetition and a dark ending that is bitter rather than sharp.
Things pick up again with the following tale, ‘All Gold Valley’, as an aging gold prospector (Tom Waits) searches for treasure in an untouched valley. Waits gives a tremendous performance, up there with Blake Nelson as the best of the film, by turns jubilant and frightened, bringing this nameless character to three dimensional life in a very limited amount of time. Of course, this is a Coen Brothers film, so every role, no matter how minor, is perfectly cast, another triumph for their regular casting director Ellen Chenoweth, whose ability to find fascinating faces remains unparalleled.
Tale number five is ‘The Gal That Got Rattled’, and is by a long way the most traditional Western of the bunch, featuring wagon train romance, scary encounters with Natives, and a whole lot of fretting about settling down in Oregon. Zoe Kazan is excellent as the Rattled Gal, but the sequence as a whole is overshadowed by Tom Waits before it and the macabre finale. Bar some slipshod effects work, every segment looks great, DOP Bruno Delbonnel capturing the beauty of varied vast landscapes. Every setting is the perfect match for its story, from the ghostly wind-whipped highway of ‘Mortal Remains’ to the drained and icy woodland of ‘Meal Ticket’.
It would be fascinating to see how each of these segments, particularly ‘Mortal Remains’ and ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’, looked on the initial plans to have them take up Netflix hours, and inevitably the final film is a little messy. But the Coens don’t forget to bring their A-game for at least some of these shorts, and even their B- and C-games are still more eminently watchable than most other filmmakers’ top-tier work.