The western genre used to be extremely popular back in the golden age of Hollywood, but in recent years however, westerns have mostly died off, as aside from a few honourable mentions such as: ‘True Grit’, ‘The Sisters Brothers’ and ‘Django Unchained’. The western genre as a whole has run mostly dry… until now that is. As beloved directors Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (The Big Lebowski, Fargo, No Country for Old Men) return to the silver screen for this brilliant western anthology.
Consisting of six different stories of life and violence in the Old West, the film follows tales of a singing gunslinger, a bank robber, a travelling impresario, an elderly prospector, a wagon train, and a perverse pair of bounty hunters.
This diverse set of stories and characters really keep the film engaging from start-to-finish, as the film constantly jumps between characters and locations all whilst ensuring that it keeps its decent pacing and usual Coen Brother’s dark sense of humour intact. Resulting in the film feeling extremely refreshing, as superhero blockbusters and jump-scare filled horrors have really taken over the film industry in recent years. So revisiting an old yet classic genre (especially with this modern spin) is truly a breath of fresh air. Especially with the Coen Brother’s brilliant direction.
The performances by every member of the enormous cast are pretty excellent all around. As Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Thomas Waits, Zoe Kazan, Jonjo O’Neill and Brendan Gleeson (just to name a few) are all brilliant when portraying their varied and interesting characters, with Tim Blake Nelson definitely being the clear stand-out for me with his extremely funny and charming portrayal of the title character: ‘Buster Scruggs’.
Throughout the runtime, the cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel is almost flawless, as the film utilizes a variety of beautiful shots which perfectly capture the visual appeal of classic westerns. The original score by Carter Burwell is also pretty great, as the soundtrack uses slow guitar stings and an enormous list of classic country songs to build-up atmosphere, with the best of these definitely being: ‘When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings’.
One aspect of the film I absolutely adore is the Coen’s usual style of writing, as every character throughout the film is given plenty of comedic moments and memorable lines, which really helped make many of the characters with slightly-less development more likeable. Another element that also really drew my attention during my first viewing was the incredible sets and costumes the film had on full-display, as considering the locations/costumes are some of the main factors of engaging the audience into the story and it’s time-period. It was clear they were pulling-out all the stops. As every location always felt very real and lived in, with the character’s clothes being no different.
My personal favourite narrative of the six would most likely be the opening story, sharing the same name as the title of the film: ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’. This opening was just such as joy to watch, balancing dark humour with a classic western set-up brilliantly, in addition to the fantastic performance from Tim Blake Nelson as already mentioned. However, this is also where my biggest criticism of the film comes in, as although they definitely aren’t awful, the last two stories are easily the weakest of the film. As although we do get some great character moments and fun scenes within these stories, I couldn’t help but feel they simply weren’t as memorable or as charming as the others leading-up to them. Perhaps if these two stories we’re placed earlier in the film it wouldn’t be such an issue, but it simply leaves the viewer with a bad taste in their mouth afterwards.
‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ proves once again that westerns are far from gone when it comes to film, as the Coen Brothers once again take the audience for a trip into the wild west with complete success. As this anthology is just as hilarious as it is visually impressive and well-acted, regardless of whether or not the stories are quite on the same level, the film is still an 8/10 overall from me.