Starring: Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Liam Neeson
Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Running Time: 133 mins
The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs is an American film, featuring six stories about life in the Old West.
As has been noted on numerous occasions, the western genre is nowadays nowhere near the heights of its glory days back in the early to mid-20th Century. With the exception of the odd failed blockbuster adaptation (Cowboys and Aliens, The Lone Ranger etc.), the genre has been left largely to auteur filmmakers with a nostalgia for old Hollywood, and that’s where the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs comes in.
As far as modern westerns go, this film is without doubt one of the most striking and engrossing depictions of the Old West I’ve seen, using stunning cinematography and settings alongside carefully crafted and as such strongly atmospheric vignettes to peer into life on the frontier, making for a thoroughly engrossing and often even spellbinding viewing experience throughout.
Let’s start off by recognising that, as an anthology movie, the film isn’t entirely consistent in its strengths and weaknesses as a normal film would be throughout, but what that does mean is that you do get pockets of immensely powerful and engrossing filmmaking, and the power of an entire story played out over a smaller, punchier segment.
In that, there are three vignettes of the film that really stand out. Its opening segment, The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, is a delightful play on the old Calamity Jane-esque western musicals, tinged with the Coens’ typical dark comedy. It’s a very entertaining opening to the film, and without doubt the movie’s most accessible sequence.
Then there’s the short but striking second vignette, Near Algodones, starring James Franco as a bank robber who gets a brutal comeuppance at the hand of vigilantes in the desert. Much darker than the opening entry, but featuring a visually exhilarating depiction of the true grit of the Old West, it’s by far the film’s most intense and outstanding piece.
The other best vignette is the fourth, All Gold Canyon, a beautifully elegant and quiet piece that centres on an old man panning for gold in the middle of a pure, untouched piece of nature. Without doubt the film’s most understated sequence, yet one with such visual grandeur thanks to its spectacular setting, as well as a deeply contemplative streak beneath the surface, proving that the Wild West isn’t all about shootouts and murder.
Those three are easily the film’s most striking sequences, in part because of their subject matter, but also because of the incredible visuals that are put on display. In fashion reminiscent of the cruelly underrated Slow West a few years ago, The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs’ patient elegance makes it one of those few films that’s able to command both the grit and majesty of the Old West, and as such making for a truly exhilarating portrayal throughout.
On the flipside, three of its vignettes aren’t quite so exceptional. I won’t go into detail, however the problem with some of the film’s sequences is that despite the visual majesty and elegant pacing, they don’t quite get to the crux of their individual story in particularly riveting fashion, occasionally languishing about in rather self-indulgent fashion (reminiscent of the first half of Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight), and as such don’t engross you to the same degree.
Overall, though, I was very impressed by The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs. It’s not perfect all the way through, but such an imbalance is a natural consequence of the anthology format. However, with three brilliant segments and incredible visuals throughout, the film brings an enthralling and deeply affecting portrayal of the Old West like very few in modern times, and that’s why I’m giving it a 7.7.