Movie Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The final nail in the coffin of the Western genre was arguably the release of Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece, Unforgiven. In Eastwood’s eye,s the American cowboy had had his day in the sun, his violence nothing but myth and dust, and instead of riding off into the sunset he merely went back to his ranch to grow old. Since then ,the Western has lived on under the guise of revisionism: movies like Hostiles, The Revenant, The Assassination of Jessie James and The Hateful Eight, which use the iconography of this old genre as window dressing to their own dark tales of revenge, survival, and especially the over-the-top masculinity of the whole thing; is there any other genre where a guy kills another guy because he walked into a room and hurt his feelings?

The Coen Brothers clearly love a challenge. Throughout their eighteen-film oeuvre, populated by lovable losers and a worlds that are both cruel, hilarious, and always a little absurd, they keep coming back to the Western. In all fairness, after Fargo, the duo basically have a free pass to indulge themselves in whatever genre they see fit: whether it’s a homespun retelling of Homer’s Odyessy (O Brother Where Art Thou), a hard boiled film noir with a stoner as the lead (The Big Lebowski), or a deadly comedy of errors set off by a former CIA employee’s memoir that doesn’t have anything worth telling (Burn After Reading). Yet their greatest work in that time have been their Westerns: the Oscar-winning neo-western, No Country for Old Men, and the magnificent True Grit.

All of which means that their new release, via Netflix, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, isn’t so much third-time’s-a-charm but the third charm in a row. In typical Coen fashion, the pair haven’t just made a third riff on a familiar genre – they also decided to make it an anthology of six stories just in case you didn’t already know that they can do whatever the fuck they like. Buster Scruggs is the Coens having as much fun as possible. Where their previous attempts in the genre have been more self-conscious and less conventional, this movie is a tribute to the Old West of the classic Hollywood.

Made up of six tales, presented for our pleasure as a cloth-bound book of short stories, Buster Scruggs has everything you could want from a Western, filtered through with the signature Coen wit. We are introduced to memorable characters of ill-repute, such as Tim Blake Nelson’s titular outlaw with songs as sunny as his disposition who spends the first story looking for an honest game of cards – it’s just a shame that everyone he meets seems to want to kill him. From there, we meet James Franco’s idiot bank robber who meets a teller with a kill list that would make Billy the Kid blush, as well as a novel use for pots and pans. In Near Algodones, Tom Waits has his work cut out for him as an old prospector in All Gold Canyon, and Liam Neeson might just prefer the chicken in the bizarrely mean Meal Ticket.

Each story is finely crafted, but the highlights of the piece belong to the last two offerings. The Gal Who Rattled feels like a romantic comedy set on a wagon train, with a pitch-perfect Zoe Kazan as a young maiden being sweetly wooed by a nervy cowboy, until it turns brilliantly bloody. Fittingly, it’s the last story that will stick with you the longest, and it’s also the most simple. Merely five people passing the time on a carriage ride but each stranger willingly winds up another until the warring few are hushed by the patter of two gentlemen bounty hunters.

The Ballad of Buster Cruggs is a celebration of the Western and a tribute to the variation of tales that come from it. It’s another classic from the Coens – and one of the increasingly-rare Netflix movies worth watching.

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By Kevin Boyle

(header image courtesy of EW.com)

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