From the filmmaking duo behind some of American cinema’s most distinct films, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a collection of six unrelated short stories that Joel & Ethan Coen wrote during the past couple decades or so. Each tale is different from the other, the only commonalities being the Old West setting & the theme of mortality.
With no central core to keep the stories aligned, the film drifts in all directions but all six tales, despite encompassing many genres, subjects, timelines, tone & mood, are smeared with the Coens’ signature style & deadpan humour. Another notable aspect that stands out is the gorgeous photography on display here from start to finish.
The first short bears the main title and follows a cheerful outlaw who leaves a trail of bodies wherever he goes until he finally meets his match. An old-school gunslinging segment infused with campy tone, musical numbers & over-the-top action, it’s my least favourite as everything was exaggerated to a point where it felt ridiculous, and not in a good way.
The second short film is Near Algodones, concerning a young cowboy who tries to rob an isolated bank. A succinct tale of a bank robbery gone wrong and its aftermath, this segment is as funny as it is violent and is wonderfully steered by a restrained performance from James Franco as the down on his luck cowboy. That last line of his and the reaction it invokes was hilarious as hell.
Next one in line, Meal Ticket, is about an ageing impresario & his limbless artist who theatrically recites stories as they travel from town to town to perform and are faced with increasing hardships due to people’s lack of interest. It is possibly the most heartbreaking of all, with an ending that you already predicted but are hoping to be wrong. Excellent work from Liam Neeson & Harry Melling.
The fourth chapter is All Gold Canyon and it follows a gold prospector who arrives at a pristine mountain valley, untouched by man, and starts digging for the metal. Shot in a truly mesmerising location, it’s the most beautifully photographed short in the anthology that captures the lush landscape in all its vibrance and illustrates the disturbance man brings along every time he steps into a natural environment.
The penultimate short is The Girl Who Got Rattled, concerning a young girl who’s journeying to Oregon with his brother in a wagon train until he dies and leaves her with no certain prospects. Like the shorts before, it keeps the viewers guessing where it’s headed and definitely benefits from excellent performances from the cast. The ending is tragic yet in tune with the anthology’s morbid tone.
And the final segment is The Mortal Remains that focuses on five different people riding together in a stagecoach to the same destination. The dialogue-heavy short film is filled to the brim with characters rambling about existential topics but it is the gothic atmosphere and mystery behind where these travellers are being ferried to that keeps us invested in the tale. The chilling finale ends on a rather ambiguous note but it does what it set out to do.
On an overall scale, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is brilliantly crafted & splendidly photographed but the anthology structure feels more impulsive than deliberate. Each short film works as a separate piece but as a whole, there is no unifying element here as the film is simply six tonally different segments thrown together into the mix. Fans of the duo won’t be complaining but the Coens’ latest would have fared better if there was a thread to align all its shorts in the same direction. Worth a watch, nonetheless.