The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
13th October 2018 11.15am at Embankment Garden Cinema
21st October 2018 8.40pm at BFI Southbank (NFT)
Originally intended as a Netflix series, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an anthology film telling six short stories set in the Wild West. We start with Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) – a wide-smiled, gunslinging musician – and then cut to tales of bank robbers, stage coaches, travelling entertainers and bounty hunters. Each story has a different mood, but holds a string of similar themes.
One wonders the reasons why the Coen Brothers chose movie over TV for Buster Scruggs, since the latter would’ve worked better. Six stories over the course of 132 minutes, all in one go, is too much even for the most avid Coen Brothers fan. But the narratives themselves are well-drawn, ranging from breathlessly hilarious to brutally sombre – each possessing an element of death hanging over the characters.
Scruggs’s tale at the start is the Coens at their most fun, bursting forth like a violent musical with Tarantinoesque blood comedy. Drama and emotion come later, delivering such bleakly poetic screenwriting that some of the stories are comparable to Ingmar Bergman (especially in the picture’s existential conclusion).
There are some excellent performances, especially from Liam Neeson – who barely speaks, but shows the psychological weight of his character, like a silent film performer. Zoe Kazan is good too, seeming (on first glance) to stray away from her romcom roots – yet her character is annoyingly underwhelming as one of the few women written for the entire anthology.
It also appears that although the Coen Brothers excel at transforming genre, they’ve made certain aspects appear unchangeable – the most obvious being the depiction of Native Americans. They’re only seen as “savages”, riding through and massacring American cowboys. The Coens could take a tip or two from Scott Cooper and his poignant revisionist Western Hostiles, released earlier this year.
But there’s something immersive and dreamlike about Buster Scruggs, as we drift through each story and move between different emotional tones while maintaining the same desolate setting. The Coens were perhaps too eager to give their audience an all-in-one gift – but what a gift it is.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is released in select cinemas and on Netflix on 16th November 2018.
Read more reviews and interviews from our London Film Festival 2018 coverage here.
For further information about the festival visit the official BFI website here.
Watch the trailer for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs here: