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Film Reviews Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is peak Coen Brothers, sliced and diced for Netflix

Tim Blake Nelson in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

Netflix/The Associated Press

  • The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
  • Written and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
  • Starring Tim Blake Nelson, Zoe Kazan and Liam Neeson
  • Classification N/A
  • 132 minutes

rating

Consisting of six short films taking place in an Old West that can only be described as a vast and wry nightmare, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs begins with a slew of murders and ends with a glimpse of the afterlife.

The opening is gleeful, absurd, shocking – a quick and bloody tour through the last day of the film’s title character, a “pleasing-baritoned” musician and full-on psychopath (Tim Blake Nelson). The closing vignette exists quite literally on its own spiritual plane, following the passengers of a ghostly stagecoach as it approaches what appears to be a very final destination. The bookends suggest life as a great, big, what-else-were-you-expecting-ya-dummy shrug.

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In other words, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is the perfect Coen Brothers' movie, albeit sliced and diced.

When production was first announced, reports pegged Buster Scruggs as a miniseries for Netflix – a one-of-a-kind deal for a two-of-a-kind brain trust. Siblings Joel and Ethan have since called foul on that notion, insisting their omnibus film was always conceived as just that, with each of the tales having been culled from various writing sessions over the past quarter-century, between developing full-length western riffs like Blood Simple, No Country for Old Men, and True Grit.

However Buster Scruggs came to be, it highlights the best of the Coens' mordant minds, but not without tripping over a few unintended obstacles. Which probably suits the pair, always in awe of things never going right, just fine.

Between the two aforementioned chapters, the Coens try on a variety of moods and styles, all stitched together by the mantra that life is hard and then you die. Near Algodones finds James Franco playing a bank robber who avoids one lynching only to find himself on the wrong end of a rope minutes later. Meal Ticket follows the “Impresario” (Liam Neeson) as he ferries the limbless “Artist” (Harry Melling) from one desolate outpost to another, plumbing new depths of cold-as-ice misanthropy (a label applied to Buster himself in the film’s opening minutes, much to his disgust). All Gold Canyon pits Tom Waits’s prospector against fates both cruel and kind, while the penultimate chapter, The Gal Who Got Rattled, is the longest and most affecting: a one-wrong-move melodrama containing rich performances from Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck.

Not every chapter delivers as the Coens might have hoped. All Gold Canyon is especially disposable and The Mortal Remains, the final instalment detailing that final ride, feels more jerky and stage-y than tightly wound and claustrophobic. The siblings' reliance on scalp-hunting “savages” in two of the shorts sits just on the wrong side of Old-West nostalgia. And while there’s likely much to be written about the film’s framing device – a weathered book whose pages contain the words to each story – it, too, must have worked better in the Coens' minds than on the screen.

If the Coens were to spend the rest of their careers making only westerns – or their stretchy, sticky interpretations of westerns – then that would be more than enough. But the dust kicked up by each passage of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs suggests that the pair are ready to move on to a new frontier. Or at least a full-length one.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs opens at the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto on Nov. 16, the same day it begins streaming globally on Netflix.

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