The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

ETHAN COEN, JOEL COEN

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.  USA, 2018.  Annapurna Pictures, Annapurna Television, Mike Zoss Productions.  Screenplay by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, segment All Gold Canyon based on a story by Jack London, segment The Gal Who Got Rattled inspired by a story by Stewart Edward White.  Cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel.  Produced by Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Megan Ellison, Robert Graf, Sue Naegle.  Music by Carter Burwell.  Production Design by Jess Gonchor.  Costume Design by Mary Zophres.  Film Editing by Ethan Coen, Joel Coen.  Academy Awards 2018.

James Franco in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Coen brothers gather up an omnibus of unconnected stories set in the Wild West, as interested in entertaining you with American mythology as they are looking to expose nostalgic ideas of American history as mythology.  The first tale deals with the titular character, Tim Blake Nelson as a singing gunman whose speed with a pistol is the finest in the west, followed by a tale of James Franco as a bank robber who has no idea what he’s up against.  There’s also Liam Neeson as a traveling showman who places a limbless orator on his wagon stage, Tom Waits as a prospector whose luck finding gold also brings a challenge from a greedy rival, and, the longest and richest of the tales, Zoe Kazan as a woman crossing the frontier on a wagon train with her brother.   The film concludes with a shift in tone, a moody version of Stagecoach in which a group of travelers (among them Tyne Daly in the film’s best performance) are forced into a cramped space in which their differing personalities create a friction that becomes something almost supernaturally scary.  The stories are all entertaining within themselves and have something sneakily clever to say about a country currently broiling with discussions about Society: westerns were always popular for what they promoted, a sense of freedom in wide open spaces and a belief that law and order would always prevail, but what we actually see is greed, racism, sexism and the dismissal of Native Americans, all still talking points today, in a film populated by individuals who are determined to make America mean whatever it means to them regardless of how anyone else feels about it.  As intelligent and timely as this might be, the combination of these tales doesn’t make for a wholly satisfying experience, it feels more like it’s been loosely strung together from bits of stories cut from other Coen brothers films than it does a bold and complete work.

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