BFI LFF Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an anthology of six stories that the Coen Brothers use to hilariously and darkly both overturn and pay homage to the tropes of the pioneering days of the old West.

How the West was Lost

by Alexa Dalby

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

First we see the cover of a 19th-century book titled The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. As it opens, we see the contents page with its six stories and we just have time to read the opening sentence or two before the page turns again to show the illustration in that period’s style and the story begins. And as each story ends, we see the book again and are just given time glimpse the last sentence. That’s the version that wrote the history of the American West, but what we’ve just seen is not quite the same.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is in fact just the first story. It opens hilariously as a Roy Rogers-style singing cowboy (Tim Blake Nelson) moseys his way through Monument Valley accompanying himself his guitar – we even see a shot up from inside from the sound hole through the strings. Looking like a cross between George Formby and Woody from Toy Story, Buster Scruggs is a fast-talking cracker barrel of bemusing homespun philosophy and because he’s dressed in white and riding a white horse, surely he must be a good guy? This is a Coen Brothers film, so not necessarily.

Near Algodones is a slighter segment that stars James Franco as a hapless bank robber, who has one of the funniest lines in the film.

Meal Ticket is the bizarre story of a travelling showman (Liam Neeson) and his limbless performer (Harry Melling from Harry Potter), who recites Shelley, Shakespeare and the Declaration of Independence to settlers in remote snowy mountain camps. Their relationship is never explained but we see the horror of it.

All Gold Canyon stars the virgin American landscape, its transcendental beauty untouched until an elderly gold prospector (Tom Waits) sets up camp by an idyllic stream.

The Gal Who Got Rattled mainly takes place in a wagon train crossing the prairie to Oregon. Zoe Kazan is a lone female in need of assistance and Bill Heck and Grainger Hines are the wagon train guides who provide it – or try to.

The Mortal Remains makes the six passengers talking on a stagecoach trope seem like a nightmare ride to Dracula’s castle. Jonjo O’Neill and Brendan Gleeson are a pair who astonish their disparate fellow passengers. Tyne Daly has the upright religious lady role, her reactions etched on her face as she listens.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs may not have the emotional heft that development over an entire movie gives, but it’s just so damned clever and as the stories progress, they don’t only get longer, they get darker and darker. They’re linked by the misfortunes of fate that befall their characters, the random death and violence of the old West that perhaps a blind eye has been turned to, and the visual motif of a neat bullet hole in the middle of the forehead that’s suffered by so many people. And by songs, not just Buster’s banalities, but songs from the heart that suddenly and unexpectedly burst out of their singers like poetry.

There’s so much visual detail to enjoy in the period sets. The colour palette of the film copies the illustrations of the book with its naive pioneer-era graphics of people, plains and mountains. The mix of Irish, British and early American accents, the convolutedly formal 19th-century language, give a period feel. ‘Indians’, looking and acting like the old-fashioned comic-book ‘Cowboys and Indians’ images are there too, but they’re represented as being as much of a force of nature as the landscape, guerrilla fighters trying to stave off the invaders.

Hilarious in places, unsettling and dark in others, visually stunning, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is pure enjoyment.

/em>The Ballad of Buster Scruggs premiered in the UK at the BFI London Film Festival on 12, 13 and 21 October and is released on Netflix on 16 November 2018.

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