American cinema has had an infatuation with the Cowboy genre since the early 1900s, with The Great Robbery released in 1903 widely regarded as the first entry into the genre. And in the 115 years since then it’s morphed from the Italian revisionism of the Spaghetti Western, to the bizzaro curiosity of 60s Acid Westerns, and even making a pitstop into musical territory. All these elements can be found in the Coen Brothers’ new Netflix epic The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. A sprawling saga of six tales, each focusing on a different region of the West and its inhabitants.
With a backbreaking prospector, to demonic coach passengers, and the titular singing gunslinger there is a commendable range to the subject matter covered. However, there is also a slight disbalance in quality as a result of there being six chapters. Some stories such as James Franco’s inept bank robber in Near Algdones, and Brendan Gleeson’s Mephistophelian bounty hunter in The Mortal Remains may have flourished in a slightly longer segment. Their twenty-minute run-times either does not allow tension to build effectively or under-utilise their cast’s abilities. They are competently made just not able to compete with their heavyweight siblings. Stories such as Meal Ticket, an exploration of the dark desperation following a travelling showman and his quadriplegic attraction, or All Gold Valley exploring adversity in the face of the harsh Western lifestyle are beautifully done. All Gold Valley particularly, starring Tom Waits in a rare leading role, demonstrates how foolish people were to dismiss the Coen Brothers after the relative misfire of Hail! Caesar. It’s a simple tale following Waits’ prospector who barks in his distinctive growl about an elusive gold deposit that he refers to playfully as “Mr Pocket”. But it excels at world building and character building, leading to an ending demonstrating how even the nicest tale can be corrupted by the underlying violence of America.
All of the stories look exceptional, having been shot by Bruno Delbonnel who previously worked on the Coen’s masterpiece Inside Llewyn Davis. His camera finding consistently inventive ways to illustrate Western life, and distinctive colour usage illustrating mood before a word has been uttered. The muted hues of the melodramatic The Gal Who Got Rattled indicate a running theme of tragedy along the Oregon Trail, while Buster Scruggs opening tale is shot in an oversaturated glow encompassing the larger than life gunslinger’s optimistic worldview. Its efficient, effective, and a strong indicator of why Buster Scruggs may be seeing a few nominations in the coming Oscars race. In fact, Buster Scruggs is the forerunner in Netflix’s awards season campaign and when you look at the cast all of whom deliver performances that are intriguing and wholly unique, it seems likely a few actors may get nods for their efforts.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a fantastic achievement, equal parts funny, distressing, and enchanting. A collection of short tales which illustrate the diversity of the Coen’s talents as filmmakers, while dissecting the myths which American lore stem from. If Netflix continues to select future projects of this quality, that the upcoming releases of Alfonso Cuarón’s ROMA and Susanne Bier’s Bird Box currently promise, we may finally draw the argument of Netflix’s viability in awards season to a close.