Venice 2018: Parables to Contemplate in 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs'
by Alex Billington
August 31, 2018
Gather ’round everyone, take a seat by the fire, for Joel & Ethan Coen have some fun new tales to tell. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a six-part Western anthology film, the latest feature from the Coen Brothers. They've made Westerns before (most notably True Grit in 2010) but this is something else entirely - six different stories, each with their own unique characters, and locations, and ideas to consider. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is as intelligent, contemplative, comedic, and as beautiful as everything from the Coens, but it goes beyond that. These six stories are actually parables about humanity and the way people cheat, lie, deceive each other, and the way men are greedy, confused, ambitious, unsure, and careless. And they're all gorgeously filmed, captivating to watch, which is no surprise considering the Coens are filmmaking masters.
Originally intended to be a mini-series for Netflix, the Coen Brothers' The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (also written by Joel & Ethan) was repackaged and re-edited into a single feature that runs 132 minutes in total. There's six individual chapters each telling a distinct story about the American West, told in a lovely vintage book that provides the framework for the film. There's no actual connection or links between each story, aside from the fact that they're about humans and are as relevant today as the time (and place) in which they're set. That seems to be the point - the Coens have some things to say about how dumb and simple and unprepared human beings are, and they mock us in all their usual contemplative ways. Which is thoroughly amusing and compelling to watch; none of the six stories is any worse than any other, they're all top notch.
The opening tale is about a talented, four-wall-breaking musician named Buster Scruggs, played by Tim Blake Nelson, who surprises others with his musical talent and fast fingers; until he's surprised himself by someone else just like him. The next tale is about a bank robber, played by James Franco, who just can't escape his fate. Next up is a tale about an armless, legless entertainer/storyteller who is carried around by Liam Neeson, until audiences prefer something else. That's followed by a tale about a prospector, played by Tom Waits, who discovers a beautiful green valley full of gold. Next up is tale of a young woman, played by Zoe Kazan, traveling in a wagon train to Oregon. And the final tale is about a group of travelers in a carriage heading to a town, featuring Jonjo O'Neill and Brendan Gleeson. They're all very entertaining.
It honestly goes without saying, but it's worth being said again - the Coen Brothers are masters of their craft. They know how to compose, shoot, edit, and build scenes with perfection. The classic Old West set design and cinematography in this is exceptional, looking truly better than ever for a western (comparable only to Tarantino's The Hateful Eight). The bits of action scattered throughout is awesome, even the gunfights are exciting despite seeing hundreds of them before. There's not a moment of this film that didn't impress me, from both a technical standpoint and a storytelling standpoint. The Coens didn't cut back at all, and while their style isn't as distinct as with some of their past films, it's nonetheless just as vibrant and beautifully realized, which is what is most important with these tall tales. I just love watching anything the Coens make.
Best of all, there's something worthwhile to extract from every one of the six stories. There's a good lesson to be learned, sure, but there's also some fascinatingly complex social criticism to unpack. Which is no real surprise considering the Coens are intelligent enough to work all this in in the most subtle of ways. A few of the segments reminded me of The Hudsucker Proxy, while others reminded me of Fargo. And there's not much more invigorating than seeing something that makes you think and discuss and analyze it in great detail, for the sake of admiring the work and talent that went into crafting these stories. And for the sake of saying, yes, this is what people are really like - then and now - and maybe we can be better. Or maybe we'll just end up the same as we've always been, never learning, always falling for the same tricks over and over.
Alex's Venice 2018 Rating: 9.5 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing