A six-shooter from the Coen Brothers
Dirs/scr: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen. US. 2018. 132mins
The delightfully protean Western anthology The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs presents audiences with just about every variation of the Coen brothers they might prefer. Genre goofs, mature ruminations, slapstick storytelling and wistful character studies all take their turn in the saddle, but what unites these six separate stories (beyond their stellar craft and distinctive worldview) is the filmmakers’ palpable excitement about working within truncated narratives, the writer-directors exploring their different guises with a sense of playful discovery.
Ballad doesn’t reinvent the Coens’ sardonic, measured aesthetic, but the anthology’s looser structure allows them a friskiness that is welcome
As with all anthologies, some of Ballad’s chapters are stronger than others, but the film’s unpredictability and sense of possibility are rousing. This Netflix release doesn’t boast quite as much star power as other recent Coen productions such as True Grit — another Western, as well as their highest-grossing film. But the brothers’ fans will no doubt come stampeding, and good reviews may help raise further awareness.
Presented as six dusty tales from the Old West, Ballad introduces us to a slew of characters, none of whom appear in further episodes. In the first instalment, we meet Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), a singing cowboy who also happens to be an ace gunslinger and wanted criminal. In another, a bandit (James Franco) encounters a bank with a teller (Stephen Root) who is more sly than he looks.
Those are just Ballad’s first two chapters, which are easily the silliest and most insubstantial of the group. But as the film moves along, Joel and Ethan Coen introduce weightier characters and more emotionally nuanced narratives — ones in which the person who is set up to be the protagonist doesn’t always end up in that position. Throughout, Ballad plays with Western tropes, but the filmmakers use the clichés as springboards for clever twists, mostly avoiding parody to instead investigate the peculiar individuals who pepper their stories.
Of a large ensemble, top honours go to Tom Waits, who is sublime as a grizzled gold prospector whose solitary journeys into nature have an almost meditative quality. The long-time songwriter and occasional actor performs a melancholy one-man show in his segment, while in a separate instalment Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck and Grainger Hines team up for a surprising wagon-train adventure in which romance and death ride alongside each other.
In the more than 30 years since the Coens premiered Blood Simple, they’ve explored varied tones and styles, but recent dramas such as A Serious Man and Inside Llewyn Davis have been explorations of existential anxiety, and Ballad is at its best when it enters similar terrain. A poignant-comical chapter concerning a stoic impresario (Liam Neeson) and his odd featured act (Harry Melling) emerges as a rather thorny commentary on the tension between art and commerce — not to mention a wry treatise on our fragile dependence on those around us.
The Coens have made short films before — their contribution to 2006’s Paris, je t’aime was one of that anthology’s strongest — but what is impressive about Ballad is that none of these six chapters feels padded or unnecessarily abridged. The instalments run different lengths, each one appropriate to the size and scope of the story being told. The briefer running times seem to have inspired the brothers to flex their creativity, experimenting with ironic, abrupt endings or letting a particular tone dominate the slim narrative. Ballad doesn’t reinvent the Coens’ sardonic, measured aesthetic, but the anthology’s looser structure allows them a friskiness that is welcome from such masterful veterans.
Bruno Delbonnel’s camerawork amplifies these tales’ old-timey, mythic qualities, while composer Carter Burwell delivers another of his superb Coen scores — actually, several of them, as his music moves from plaintive to menacing, depending on the story.
Production companies: Netflix, Annapurna Pictures
Worldwide distribution: Netflix
Producers: Joel Cohen, Ethan Cohen, Megan Ellison, Sue Naegle, Robert Graf
Production design: Jess Gonchor
Editing: Roderick Jaynes
Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnel
Music: Carter Burwell
Main cast: Tyne Daly, James Franco, Brendan Gleeson, Bill Heck, Grainger Hines, Zoe Kazan, Harry Melling, Liam Neeson, Tim Blake Nelson, Jonjo O’Neill, Chelcie Ross, Saul Rubinek, Tom Waits, Clancy Brown, Jefferson Mays, Stephen Root, Willie Watson