'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs': Film Review | Venice 2018

Smart and smart-ass.

The Coen brothers’ latest is a Western anthology film backed by Netflix and featuring James Franco, Zoe Kazan and Liam Neeson.

Part sincere and part smarmy, part amusing and part windy nonsense, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs plays like an old Western-themed vaudeville show featuring six unrelated sketches of drastically differing quality. In other words, this little Western anthology is minor Coen brothers, worth checking out on Netflix, which backed it, but of very limited potential theatrically.

The Coens decisively proved themselves as devotees of Western lore past in True Grit and present in No Country for Old Men, and their keenness for the genre comes through palpably in the music, language, storytelling tropes and settings they’ve chosen for this diversion. Despite the snark and irreverence, genre specialists will eat up the devotion to detail here, from the relish the Coens take in writing colorful 19th century Western vernacular to the musical choices and the lovely between-acts artwork.

The scene-setter, which lends the entire anthology its name, is unfortunately one of the most off-putting of the episodes, as it’s both over the top and sourly, cheaply cynical. Tim Blake Nelson romps through the Old West in the spanking new white outfit of a traditional good guy singing cowboy, a crooner called “The Kid,” who always gets the better of a succession of tough hombres with his six-shooter. While mowing down all comers, he sings egotistically about how he’s the quickest draw in the West, until, abruptly, he isn’t. He comes off like a schmuck and all it’s possible to feel is that this self-satisfied smart-ass got his just deserts.

The tone changes but matters still don’t improve all that much in the second episode, “Near Algodones,” in which James Franco, as “Cowboy,” robs a bank and soon ends up in a noose under a tree. Next comes “Meal Ticket,” an oddly populated picaresque interlude starring Liam Neeson as the impressario of a touring show.

The anthology finally strikes its own particular mother lode with “All Gold Canyon,” a genuinely eccentric, beguiling and physically gorgeous account of a nutty old prospector (Tom Waits, in a welcome return to a fine role for him) who discovers an untouched mountain valley with a river that runs through it and has more to offer that just beauty. The man feels blessed to have this gorgeous place all to himself, and his ongoing self-directed monologues prove mightily engaging.

Waits’ old geezer becomes so affable that one shares his joy in his eventual gold strike. Most assuredly, trouble follows, but the Coens find a twisty way to make the whole thing come together in what finally stands, at the film’s end, as the one real jewel in the anthology.

Not at all bad either is the next yarn, the wonderfully titled story “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” It’s a wagon train yarn, set, like the others, in the early 1850s, that begins in half-straight, half-smart-alecky mode but gradually becomes a mournfully tragic tale that evinces a real and sincere love of the West. Crucial to its success is a rich and true performance by Grainger Hines as the wagon master.

What remains, in “The Mortal Remains,” unfortunately proves rather less effective. Five bores in a stagecoach disgorge dialogue that is far from the Coens’ best, causing claustrophobia to close in at once. The badinage is awash with 19th century esoterica that feels more researched than authentic or amusing, although there is partial redemption in the pleasure the actors — which include Brendan Gleeson, as “The Irishman,” and Tyne Daly — clearly take in chewing over the dialogue and spitting it out.

Redeeming the erratic material is the constant pleasure provided by the splendid team of Coen collaborators. Carter Burwell’s wonderfully resourceful score is abetted by no end of Western tunes that have been neatly worked into the flow of events. Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography, rapturously embraces the stunning locations found in Colorado, Nebraska and New Mexico, while Jess Gonchor’s production design and Mary Zophres’ costume creations are lovingly detailed to the nail and stitch. 

Production companies: Annapurna Pictures, Mike Zoss Productions
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Tyne Daly, James Franco, Brendan Gleeson, Bill Heck, Grainger Hines, Zoe Kazan, Harry Melling, Liam Neeson, Tim Blake Nelson, Jonjo O’Neill, Chelcie Ross, Saul Rubinek, Tom Waits, Clancy Brown, Jefferson Mays, Stephen Root, Willie Watson
Directors-screenwriters: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Producers: Megan Ellison, Sue Neagle, Bob Graf
Executive producer: Jillian Longnecker
Director of photography: Bruno Delbonnel
Production designer: Jess Gonchor
Costume designer: Mary Zophres
Editor: Roderick James
Music: Carter Burwell
Casting: Ellen Chenoweth
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)

132 minutes