Western anthology film is a winning tale (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs review)

The Coen Brothers are back! The masters of dark comedy have returned to smaller screens this time with their Netflix distributed western anthology film ‘The Ballad of Buster Scroggs’. After a limited theatrical release, it’s the first of their films to be distributed on a streaming platform. Though it seems a shame that the majority of viewers (myself included) won’t get to see the beautiful frontier locations on the big screen, it actually makes a perfect film for Netflix and a wonderfully enjoyable piece of entertainment.

This is an anthology film, meaning there are multiple small stories connected only by the fact they all take place on the American Frontier. Six tales make up the film, each darkly comic and tragic in equal measures, as is the staple of a Coen Brothers picture. Though some of the stories are less enjoyable than others, none of them are bad and this means the film is a fantastically engaging piece to watch. The advantage of it being a Netflix anthology film is that, should the desire really take you, you can watch the segments out of order or at different times and it won’t affect the story (though for the full effect I recommend you watch it in one sitting).

Opening the film is the title story ‘The Ballad of Buster Scroggs’. Tim Blake Nelson is the titular singing cowboy, sharp shooter and all-round entertainer. His cocky manor is hilarious to watch, and it features one of the funniest gun fights I’ve ever seen in film.

Following on is ‘Near Algodones’ which sees James Franco attempting to rob a bank, and the issues that follow. This segment, while enjoyable, felt the least rounded of all the stories. It’s very short and the story doesn’t have a satisfying close.

Next is ‘Meal Ticket’, possibly the darkest of the stories. Liam Neeson is a showman with a traveling artist, played by Harry Melling. The artist has no arms or legs, and is instead just a torso and a head performing powerful speeches. The story of this beautifully unfolds with very little dialogue and explores the desperation of fame and success.

‘All Gold Canyon’ continues exploring the themes of success at any cost as Tom Waits’s Prospector pans for Gold. Desperate to find it, he works tirelessly to achieve his goal in an inspirational short about never giving up.

The longest section is next, ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled’. Again, the narrative in this story felt unfinished despite having a satisfying ending. The momentum of the whole film is definitely jolted by the length of this section, and it surely could have been trimmed down slightly.

Finishing the tales is ‘The Mortal Remains’, a chilling investigation into mortality, spirituality and the afterlife. It’s a strong closer, and features great performances from a sinister Jonjo O’Neill and a charming Brendan Gleeson.

As a whole piece the film works incredibly well. Though there are some timing issues and perhaps the pieces could have been re-ordered to help fix this problem, it is still a remarkable achievement. There is a great splattering of blood and darkly comic violence, a staple of the Coen Brother’s filmography; it’s beautiful to look at and the performances from a huge cast are stellar. It ties the stories nicely together with book pages and musical themes, and is a great example of how Netflix can be used for alternate and more experimental filmmaking.

You can watch The Ballad of Buster Scroggs HERE if you have a valid Netflix account

9 Stars

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