Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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Two generations ago, almost every small town in Ireland had its own cinema, and young boys and girls would flock to watch the latest films from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Many were in notable thrall to the Western: one of Hollywood’s oldest genres, and one that has taken quite the battering since its heyday.

Revisionist Westerns like Unforgiven and the Coen Brothers’ own No Country for Old Men aside, the Western is dead in mainstream cinema. But the Coens’ new anthology film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, is very much a Western those kids would have recognised.

There’s something very old-fashioned about these stories, some of which are originals, others loose adaptations, and all of which Joel and Ethan Coen have sat on for around 25 years. Whether it’s the conceit of each story opening with a shot of “colour plate” from an old book giving us a glimpse of what we’re about to see, or the straight up portrayals of Native Americans being barbarous enemies. It is the Coens, though, so nothing is quite so simple. What’s more, the film had a limited theatrical release and is streaming on Netflix; you can’t get more 2018 than that.

The opener is the breezy title story. Tim Blake Nelson, who played the dozy Delmar O’Donnell in the Coens’ classic O Brother Where Art Thou, is the eponymous Buster Scruggs, a jovial sharp-shooter with a “pleasing baritone” who will shoot a man’s fingers off as soon as look at him. Of course, there’s a new sharp-shooter in town, and Buster’s reign may soon be over. This is the lightest story of the six, despite the comic violence, and the use of a sun-soaked palette put me in mind of the old ‘50s Westerns I sometimes watch with my Dad.

Next up, James Franco finds his way to the end of a noose after picking the wrong bank to rob. In a gloriously funny sequence, the old bank teller, armoured in pots and pans, chases him with a pistol. About to be executed, a band of Native Americans show up, killing the would-be thief’s tormentors, but not sparing him. The Native American portrayal (they also appear in ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled’) seems a little too old fashioned, but it’s clear these stories are not meant to be revising the Western genre, rather just adding to it. The Native Americans that appear are not cruel, or do not kill for the sake of it. They are merely indifferent to the white men they encounter, men who are, after all, encroaching on the land they lived on for centuries.

Irish interest in this anthology is strong, and Liam Neeson delivers as a travelling entertainment manager in the next story, ‘Meal Ticket’. You simply haven’t lived till you’ve heard him drunkenly roar ‘The Sash’. Neeson is the manager of an act called ‘The Wingless Thrush’, a boy without arms or legs but with a wonderful gift for oratory. He’s played with aplomb by Harry Melling, better known as Vernon Dursley in the Harry Potter films. As the hard winter drags on, so beautifully depicted onscreen that the viewer’s own body temperature drops vicariously, the show is drawing less and less of a crowd. The final twist is shocking.

Next we have Tom Waits as a grizzled prospector, and if that’s not a reason to watch ‘All Gold Canyon’ I don’t know what is. Personally I found the destruction wrought on the gorgeous scenery by the dint of gold hunting moving, perhaps more than ever in these uncertain environmental times. Given that it’s based on a story by the author of White Fang, Jack London, maybe it’s intentional.

‘The Gal Who Got Rattled’ is the only story to have its focus on a female character. It opens with a funny dinner scene where the ‘Gal’ of the title, Alice (Zoe Kazan), and her feckless brother discuss their plans to move out West with the other residents of their boarding house. In typical black comedy style, Grandma in the corner might just be sleeping, or she may have died. Alice’s brother soon succumbs to fever on the Oregon Trail, and she has to rely on the kindness of the wagon leaders. She soon begins a tentative romance with one, Billy Knapp, but fate has one last twist in store for both of them.

Another icon of Irish acting, Brendan Gleeson, is at his best in the final story, the creepy ‘Mortal Remains’. Gleeson is Clarence, who along with his companion Thigpen (Jonjo O’Neill), find themselves in a carriage with three other passengers, a Frenchman, a Lady and an Old Trapper. It’s worth reminding ourselves that during the era most Western stories are set- the 19th century- that across the Atlantic the Victorians were perfecting the art of the ghost story. This final tale certainly has that sinister air, and its wide open to interpretation.

A long time ago, the Coens described O Brother Where Art Thou as a “love letter to the music” and this entertaining collection is most definitely a love letter to the cinematic Old West.

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