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MOVIES: (LFF 2018) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs - Review

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is the most conflicted I have been about a film at the London Film Festival so far, and that’s in part due to its nature as an anthology film. Several of the stories are hits but there are plenty that are misses, as the Coen Brothers use the anthology – originally intended as a TV series before being adapted into a movie (the reverse of what happened to 2017’s awards darling Godless, which started out as a movie) - to tell their version of pretty much every western film ever. There’s a mystery here, there’s drama and tragedy, and there’s even a musical that the film opens with.

The last film by The Coen Brothers was Hail! Caesar, which was met with a divisive reputation and it’s easy to see that The Ballard of Buster Scruggs will suffer from the same fate. Some of the stories move incredibly slowly at times, to the point where we’re literally watching a man dig holes repeatedly in search of gold, but it’s something that turns out to be surprisingly one of the more emotionally investing stories that we’ve seen to date with a good performance by Tom Waits in particular as an old Prospector. Another highlight, aside from the opening standout of the musical piece starring Tim Blake Nelson as the titular Buster Scruggs is also the Near Algodones short, focusing on a bank robber who overestimated the skills and survival instinct of his prey.

Told with the Coens’ traditional approach to comedy, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs brings an all-star cast to the table. Meal Ticket may be one of the weaker stories of the bunch, not quite having the impact that it so desired, but it’s hard to fault its technical aspects and its performances, including strong ones by both Liam Neeson and Harry Melling. It’s worth returning to the tale of Buster Scruggs for sure though, purely for the delightful charm of the musical numbers. It had the entire theatre laughing for the short’s runtime, and even once the journey ended, it was still one of the shorts that left the best possible impact on the audience. The Coen Brothers certainly know how to start with a bang.

The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnell is absolutely brilliant. Be it stunning shots of a landscape undisturbed by man or a stagecoach speeding off into the dead of night, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs captures the audiences’ attention into just how mind-blowingly good it looks. Coupled with the score from Carter Burwell, it’s hard not to fault the technical side of things. After all, the Coens’ direction is flawless. It’s just the narrative where the main fault sometimes lies, but then again, that depends on the stories. Some of them feel like a chore to sit through.

One of the benefits of an anthology is to switch back and forth through multiple tropes of the western genre and that’s what the Coens loved to do here. If Red Dead Redemption was the game version of ‘every western ever’, The Ballard of Buster Scruggs is the movie version of it. The Girl Who Got Rattled stars Zoe Kazan as Alice Lonagbaugh, and it shows just how bleak the Oregon trail can get, making the best use of its cast and characters. It’s also one of the more depressing stories that The Coens tell, showing the cruel irony of life in a way that only the Coens know how.

They have experimented with the western genre before in True Grit and it’s hard not to fall in love with certain parts of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. As mentioned before, the crowd-pleasing titular story will draw the most laughs, with the second story being another comedic treat. It’s interesting to note how this was planned as an anthology series before being adapted into a movie – how differently would it have fared had it been a TV show?

It felt more like one than a film and as a result suits the Netflix method of watching it very nicely indeed, but that’s probably due to how few anthology films we get nowadays with the same exposure compared to something like this. Although ultimately it may not go down in history as one of the stronger Coen Brothers films - it is a passion project that was clearly made with love and care. Hopefully the opening short won't be the last comedic western musical that we'll get.

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