Hail Caesar

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

19/11/18

The release of a new Coen Brothers movie is always something to look forward to but, in what is fast becoming a trend, this classy anthology of Western-themed stories has gone directly to Netflix. Early talk of a simultaneous theatrical release doesn’t seem to be much in evidence and, ironically, if ever a Coen Brothers’ film deserves to be viewed on the big screen, this is the one. With its gorgeous location photography and scenes that pay homage to veteran directors like John Ford and Sergio Leone, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a veritable feast for the eyes and is hardly done justice by the modest screen we have at home.

Still, this being a Coen Brothers movie, we aren’t going to let the opportunity to see it pass us by, even if we’re obliged to watch it on an iPad.

The Coens have always proudly displayed their evident love of the Western genre. There is, of course, True Grit, a superb remake of one of John Wayne’s most successful oaters; but even the likes of Hail Caesar and The Big Lebowski have gleefully sported cowboy characters, strangely at odds with the times in which the action is set – and what is No Country For Old Men but a contemporary Western, replete with violent gunplay and frantic chases across arid landscapes?

The conceit of TBOBS is that it’s presented as a book of short stories, each one complete with an accompanying Frederic Remington-style illustration that directly refers to the action. The stories vary greatly in tone: from the titular, singing-cowboy spoof, in which Tim Blake Nelson portrays a kind of psychopathic Roy Rogers, to the dour and savage Meal Ticket, in which limbless actor, Harrison (Harry Melling), struggles to make a living as he tours his oratory skills around a succession of frontier towns, while his impassive minder (Liam Neeson) watches and draws up his merciless plans for survival.

If the stories have a theme in common it’s that all of them deal with different aspects of death. There’s also the overriding conviction that most characters in the old West were ruled by cold-blooded self-interest. Even The Gal Who Got Rattled, the closest this film has to offer us in the way of a love story (and arguably the most compelling of the six tales), is haunted by a powerful sense of tragedy.

This is one of the Coens’ finest achievements, a brutal, bloody compilation laced with a thread of the darkest humour imaginable. And, if I’m being honest, who knows how well this would have fared at the cinema, where six part Western anthologies are as rare as hen’s teeth and where, so often, it’s mediocrity that succeeds in putting bums on seats?

That said, if you should be lucky enough to live near a cinema that’s actually screening this little gem, mosey on down there and grab yourself a Stetson-full. Or just go to Netflix. The simple truth is that whatever sized screen you end up viewing it on, this is filmmaking of the highest calibre.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

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