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The tragedy and comedy ever-present in the work of the Coen Brothers has never been closer than in their Westerns. From Miller’s Crossing to No Country for Old Men to their unnecessary but textured remake of True Grit. Now with their anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs the tragi-comedy that has made all their work so famous comes to the fore along with some spooky side tracks and harsh doses of reality.
The film begins with the titular tale of the balladeer and sharpshooter Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) and his adventures in the town of Frenchman’s Gulch. Following that comes Near Algodones in which a bank robber (James Franco) gets more than he bargained for in mishap after mishap. Next is the pitch dark, wintry tale of travelling showman Impresario (Liam Neeson) and his quadriplegic performer (Harry Melling) in Meal Ticket.
In a verdant valley an ageing prospector (Tom Waits) digs for gold in All Gold Canyon. The Gal Who Got Rattled follows the romantic ups and downs of Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) on a wagon train to Oregon. Last comes the Gothic coach ride The Mortal Remains where an English Edgar Allan Poe impersonator (Jonjo O’Neill) and his Irish assistant (Brendan Gleeson) scare their fellow passengers: a Lady (Tyne Daly), a Frenchman (Saul Rubinek) and a Trapper (Chelcie Ross).
Despite the variety in all six tales each has the Coen Brothers touch all over it. From the pitch black comedy of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs to the real world tragedy of The Gal Who Got Rattled and the bloody, kinetic action of Near Algodones all bear the hallmarks of a single Coen Brothers feature. It may also be one of the best looking films they’ve made. Certainly their best looking Western at any rate.
The cinematography is typically sun-bleached and burnt by director of photography Bruno Delbonnel but it is in the film’s darker segments that the camerawork is at its most expressive. Meal Ticket’s snowy darkness and oil lamp shadows offset every other segment through the sheer commitment to how grim and misanthropic it is. The fade from an orange sunset to purple twilight to midnight blue in The Mortal Remains reflects that segment’s own ratcheting unease.
Roderick Jayne’s – an alias used by the Coen Brothers – editing is most obvious in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs as quick cuts emphasise Nelson’s dynamism in the title role as well as the quick gunfights. Long takes and fast wordplay juxtapose the eeriness of The Mortal Remains with its initial comedy of manners setting. The Coens let Delbonnel’s sweeping cinematography in All Gold Canyon speak for itself as Waits grumbles his way through a minimal script.
As stacked as the cast is it’s the Coen’s talent for finding diamonds in the rough that really stands out here. Although his impression comes dangerously close to Chris Conner’s hologram in Altered Carbon Jonjo O’Neill makes Edgar Allen Poe his own in The Mortal Remains. Bill Heck and Grainger Hines are heart-breaking as lonely cowboys in The Gal Who Got Rattled. Stephen Root is the most entertaining part of Near Algodones as a crazed and uninterpretable bank clerk. Although Clancy Brown appears for less than two minutes in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs it would be hard to find a funnier death scene in 2018.
If there is a dud in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs it’s Near Algodones but then every short story collection has its dud. That’s what this film is: a short story collection. Intercut between each segment is a book with a coloured page illustrating a pivotal scene in the forthcoming chapter. Despite the difference between all six they are united by the nature of the Coen’s work. Morality, mortality and happenstance give The Ballad of Buster Scruggs it’s connecting tissue but it’s the directors’ wit and occasionally cruel sensibilities that make this film so compelling.