The Ballard of Buster Scruggs (2018) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Six stories from the Coen brothers

The Coen brothers’ latest film “The Ballard of Buster Scruggs”, which was premiered at the Venice International Film Festival this August and was released on Netflix on last Friday, is a delightful mixed bag to amuse and entertain you a lot. Consisting of six different western stories, the movie deftly dances from one story to another, and I was frequently amused or touched as admiring its impeccable mood and details.

In the beginning, the movie shows us an antique anthology book published in 1873 and then presents the six western stories contained inside the book one by one, which are respectively preceded by a color illustration with a short excerpt below it. The first story, “The Ballard of Buster Scruggs”, opens with a singing cowboy played by Tim Black Nelson, and this guy cheerfully introduces himself as an outlaw too nice to be called a misanthrope, but, what do you know, he soon comes to reveal how lethal and dangerous he can be. Like many of the Coen brothers’ films, the movie jolts us with its wry morbid mix of humor and violence, and I must confess that I chuckled hard while watching an outrageously gruesome moment involved with a supporting character played Clancy Brown.

The second story, “Near Algodones”, is about a very unlucky bank robber played by James Franco. At first, we see him attempting to rob a small bank located in the middle of some remote region, but an old teller who is taking care of the bank by himself turns out to be quite resistant, and that is just the beginning of our robber guy’s macabre predicament, which eventually ends with a simple but very funny closing line you have to hear for yourself.

In contrast to the wry hilarity of the first two stories in the film, the third story, “Meal Ticket”, is hauntingly bleak, melancholic, and tragic. It is about a taciturn impresario played Liam Neeson and a young limbless man who has been the impresario’s sole show (He was played Harry Melling, who previously played that mean cousin in Harry Potter films), and we see how their show becomes less popular as they move from one rural spot to another. While the young limbless man is consistently fine and eloquent in his recital of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” and other things including Shakespeare plays and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, the size of his audiences is continuously decreased, and the impresario later decides to do something about this problem. Although the ending of the story is quite restrained, the closing shot is devastating nonetheless, and it still lingers on my mind even at this point.

The fourth story, “All Gold Canyon”, revolves around the arduous search for gold by an old prospector played by Tom Waits, who looks as shaggy as Walter Huston in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948). After arriving in a valley area surrounded by beautiful sceneries, the old prospector patiently looks for any trace of gold, and the movie leisurely observes his progress while providing a few amusing moments including the one involved with a big owl. The story eventually arrives at a certain narrative point as expected, but I will not tell you more about that here in this review for not ruining your entertainment at any chance.

In case of the fifth story, “The Gal Who Got Rattled”, it is probably the most poignant part of the film. At first, we meet a young woman named Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) and her older brother, and we get to know a bit about their ongoing journey to the West while they have a dinner with others during the opening scene. When something unexpected happens later, she is confused and devastated while not knowing what to do next, and two other characters in the story sincerely try to help her as much as they can, but their stark world is not very kind to say the least.

The sixth story, “The Mortal Remains”, focuses on a long conversation among five passengers riding a stagecoach together, and it further emphasizes the common themes it shares along with the other five stories of the film. As two of the passengers in the stagecoach, played by Brendan Gleeson and Jonjo O’Neill, subsequently reveal that they are a couple of bounty hunters delivering the body of their latest target, their conversation with others becomes more interesting and unnerving than before, and the movie provides some eerie touches when the passengers eventually arrive at where they are going to stay for a night.

While having a lot of wry fun with their stories and characters, the Coen brothers pack their film with commendable technical aspects as usual. While their editing is precise and efficient, the cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel, who previously collaborated with the Coen brothers in “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013), provides a number of breathtakingly beautiful moments to be appreciated, and I particularly enjoy the crisp landscape shots shown during the third story. The score by Carter Burwell, who has steadily worked with the Coen brothers since their debut film “Blood Simple” (1984), is effectively utilized in several key scenes in the film, and it is inarguably one of his best works.

On the whole, “The Ballard of Buster Scruggs” is a masterful genre exercise to be savored and cherished, and it surely reminds me again of how they have been constantly interesting filmmakers during last 34 years. Although it is a bit shame that I could not watch it on a big screen, I had a pretty entertaining time anyway when I watched it at last night, so I recommend it without any hesitation.

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