Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Cast: Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Liam Neeson
Watch The Ballad of Buster Scruggs online in the UK: Netflix UK
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“The San Saba Songbird is my sobriquet of preference,” declares Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), partway through his ballad. His brief story forms the first segment in an anthology of Western shorts from the Coen brothers, and it’s a riotous introduction to a perfectly formed tour of the frontier.
The frontier, of course, is familiar territory to the Coen brothers – not just the Old West but the border the Fargo and No Country for Old Men directors have been moseying up and down their whole career: the duo are masters of death, or, more accurately, masterful shepherds for him, always finding the ideal time for him to ride across and take a soul back to the other side, to comic, tragic or surreal effect. The brothers knew right out of the gate with Blood Simple that, in reality, there is no ideal time for him to do so, and their ability to mine life’s ultimate leveller for profound reflection, side-splitting comedy or gripping tension is second to none. Their best work does all three at once, which makes The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a compendium of their varied moods, tones and oddball characters, a delightful career highlight in a career already full of them.
Buster is the ideal introduction to this gently twisted tale of tales, heralding our arrival in Coen Land with a horse between his legs and a guitar in his hand. Over the course of 15 minutes, we learn that he goes by many names – the West Texas Twit, The Runt of Rheardan Pass – none of them flattering and none of them chosen by him. But despite his dire reputation, this musical man of gun mettle is impossible to beat, not because of his quick-draw reflexes, but because of his ear for a tune; so infectious are his lyrics and twanged strings that everyone can’t help but join in. “On humankind, he poured his scorn, but he frowns no more now his face is gone,” he trills, while climbing atop a saloon bar, after shooting an opponent point blank in the head.
That signature balance of violence and humour is played with a lightness of touch that matches the goofy charisma of Blake Nelson – he first got the script for the role back in 2002 – and while that might make his micro-musical seem trivial, it’s a welcome counterpoint to what becomes an increasingly dark odyssey of America. Alongside Buster, we’re introduced to an unlucky thief (played by James Franco with amusing deadpan), who attempts to rob a bank – a darkly funny but deceptively brutal vignette that does for kitchenware what Sergio Leone did for the harmonica.
We also meet a wandering showman (a world-weary Liam Neeson, sighing more than speaking) and his minstrel of choice, Harrison, a quadriplegic orator with a tongue that can turn any literary extract into gold – or, at least, he could. Harry Melling, who has impressed on-stage since Dudley Dursley in both King Lear and Pinter’s The HotHouse, is heart-wrenchingly good as the young ward, delivering speeches with Shakespearian might while poignant tragedy rings in his eyes – it’s a treat to see him given a showcase like this, and precisely the kind of casting that makes the Coen brothers’ sideshow of eccentrics feel convincing, even when only on screen for a few minutes.
Tom Waits is another choice pick, as he leads a one-man show that follows a prospector chasing a pile of gold. Singing Mother McCree and calling out to “Mr Pocket”, he’s magnetic to watch, even when he’s silently digging a hole. A welcome female-centred story sees Zoe Kazan play the innocent Miss Longabaugh, sent to Oregon by her brother to marry a business partner. To say things go awry would be no spoiler, but what does surprise is how sweet the tale becomes, as hope rears against a gory backdrop.
It all builds to a more sinister climax, which combines howling farce with lip-smacking portent, as Brendan Gleeson and Jojo O’Neill (On Chesil Beach, Fortitude) perform a distracting double act for a coach full of self-centred misfits, as they hurtle through the chilling night.
If that sounds like a mixed bag, what’s remarkable is how consistent each entry is, like a microcosm of the Coens’ career. The Ballad started out as a TV series before becoming a movie, and that decision is backed up by the Coens’ knack for making each story just as long as it needs to be; we have time to enjoy a dog named President Pierce, the biting words of Miss Longabaugh’s Grandma Turner, the heavenly vocals of Tim Blake Nelson, the way the camerawork shifts to suit each mood, from sun-dappled greenery to dirty, dusty browns.
These are impeccable short films, each one deserving of a release in their own right as standalone episodes, not unlike Joe Swanberg’s Easy. Wrapped up as a feature film, though, The Ballad also gets a deserved spot on the big screen (albeit not as many big screens as one might like), where audiences are likely to cheer and sigh along with each finely tuned number. One of the tracks laments the tricky relationship between art and commerce, a give-and-take bond that’s becoming all the more important as the role of streaming services grows. With the freedom to shape their work in the way that best suits it, though, Netflix and the Coen brothers emerge as a perfect fit. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs isn’t just one masterpiece, but a collection of several masterpieces that might seem slight, but are no less worth singing about.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.