The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
dir-scr Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
prd Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Megan Ellison, Sue Naegle
with Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Harry Melling, Bill Heck, Grainger Hines, Clancy Brown, Stephen Root, Chelcie Ross, Jonjo O'Neill, Saul Rubinek, Willie Watson
release US/UK 9.Nov.18
18/US Netflix 2h13
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The wild frontier: Kazan and Heck

nelson franco neeson
london film fest
R E V I E W    B Y    R I C H    C L I N E
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs Joel and Ethan Coen tell six stories from the Wild West in this anthology. The segments are unconnected, although each grapples with questions about mortality, with quite a few characters who die pointlessly. The actors pack scenes with personality, including songs, humour and brutality. And it's spectacularly shot by Bruno Delbonnel, so it's worth finding on a big screen if possible.

The eponymous first episode centres on Buster (Nelson), an outlaw clad in spotless white who sings and narrates his every move. In a dusty saloon, he runs into Surly Joe (Brown), a rule-breaking gunslinger who underestimates Buster's criminal credentials. In Near Algodones, a cowboy (Franco) sets out to rob an empty bank, but underestimates the resourceful teller (Root) and ends up in a sticky situation. Meal Ticket follows a businessman (Neeson) travelling the countryside with a limbless actor-orator (Melling). But audiences are dwindling, and there's another option.

Next is All Gold Canyon, a paradise in which a lone prospector (Waits) painstakingly hunts a pocket of gold, watched by an owl. In The Gal Who Got Rattled, young Alice (Kazan) is left to fend for herself in her wagon train, so swarthy leader Billy (Heck) offers to help. His boss (Hines) seems dubious. And in The Mortal Remains, five people (Daly, Gleeson, Ross, O'Neill and Rubinek) travel across a barren wasteland in a carriage, telling each other stories about their lives on their way to an isolated hotel.

Each episode is shot in a way that captures the grandeur of the settings, playing cleverly on the Western genre's history. Within this, actors deliver superbly witty performances, finding details that bring each segment to life. And many of them also break out into song, for one reason or another. Each of the central characters has an encounter with death that fundamentally alters his or her perspective and future. Standouts in the excellent cast are Nelson's smiling gunslinger, Waits' tenaciously grizzled gold-rusher and Ross' chatty trapper.

The most darkly involving segment Kazan and Heck's, with a series of plot turns that both pull us into the story and remind us of the unpredictability of this time and place. Franco's brisk clip is a fiercely witty joke about justice. And Neeson and Melling's episode is the most haunting, adding a sense of pathos without any actual dialog. In their inimitable way, the Coens continue to provocatively grapple with the cruel vagaries of fate in American culture.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 5.Dec.18

R E A D E R   R E V I E W S
send your review to Shadows... The Ballad of Buster Scruggs Still waiting for your comments ... don't be shy.

© 2018 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall