The Coen Brothers return to tell six tall tales from the old west. A singing cowboy (Tim Blake Nelson) wreaks havoc in a small town; a bank robber (James Franco) is hanged twice; an actor (Harry Melling) with no arms or legs experiences a drought relationship with his manager (Liam Neeson); a gold prospector (Tom Waits) seeks a deposit; a young woman (Zoe Kazan) joins a convoy through dangerous territory to an uncertain future; and five strangers find themselves undertaking a very strange wagon ride.
In these six stories, the Coens visit every western staple. There are saloons and brothels, bank robberies and quickdraw contests, gold digging and trailblazing. There’s a consistent spirit of adventure throughout the tales. The other consistent element is death which comes suddenly and indifferently to the good and bad alike.
As the film progresses the stories become less madcap and more tragic. In the first film, the violence is shocking but comedic. It serves as proof of what the Coens are prepared to do, which adds to the tension in the later, straighter films. The result is a feature film that entertains in different ways throughout. Those who find the opening film too silly will be thoroughly pleased by the prospector and wagon trail stories. Those preferring the comedic will enjoy the final tale which is also a ghost story. There really is something for everyone.
The real constant throughout is quality. The Coen Brothers are masters of playful yet authentic dialogue. Their editing is flawless and inventive. Performances are uniformly wonderful and endearing. Tim Blake Nelson requires special mention for his unforgettable performance as the singular Buster Scruggs, one of the strangest characters the brothers have ever created.
The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs is a masterful work by writer-directors at the top of their game. It’s exciting, tragic, and completely unpredictable.
The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs is showing at The London Film Festival on Saturday 13 October 2018 at 11:15 at the Embankment Garden Cinema.