On the ground at the Adelaide Film Festival, critic Blake Howard attended the Australian premiere of the new film from the beloved Coen brothers, which arrives on Netflix on November 16.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is the Coen brothers’ first foray into the streaming world. What began life as a Western series has been whittled down into an eclectic anthology of vignettes that act as a tasting menu of everything the Coens have to offer.
The opening two tales whet your appetite with their characteristic comedic flair. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs sees the titular singing gun-slinger having to fend off a continuous queue of challengers who have heard speak (and song) of his deadly hand. The Coen’s regular score-master Carter Burwell drastically overachieves in this anthology, but it’s the first chapter where he earns his keep.
The first stanza heaps adoration on western musicals, the best in this critic’s opinion being Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo. Tim Blake Nelson (who plays Buster) uses his diminutive stature and penetrating gaze to heighten the sweetness with which he delivers his superbly timed braggadocio and high order violence. It’s as if Donald O’Connor from Singing in the Rain sauntered into Deadwood.
Near Algodones sees a cowboy (James Franco) attempt a robbery that doesn’t go as planned, when the bank manager turns out to have a hilariously elaborate defence system. Bruno Delbonnel’s brilliant cinematography and composition created a mystic and shadowy cool in Franco’s distinctive face; there was at least one moment when I could have sworn I saw Charles Bronson from Once Upon a Time in the West. The consistently terrific and hilarious Stephen Root steals the show as a bank manager who must have been privy to tales of our Ned Kelly, with a cooking utensil inspired armour couture.
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The next three tales shift the tone entirely. They look at humanity in the wilderness, examining art, money and love through a moral lens. And it wouldn’t be the Coen’s without pangs of humour even in the most devastating circumstances. Meal Ticket sees the punishing, repetitious grind of the travelling artist and his manager (Liam Neeson). Neeson’s bullocking impresario shows the depths of exploitation in frontier show business.
In All Gold Canyon, Tom Waits’ Prospector endures the back-wrenching exercise and ecstasy of discovering and extracting one’s fortune from the ground. The Coens and Delbonnel make a picturesque vision of natural beauty interrupted by man. Waits’ weathered face, gravelly voice and woollen-looking bouffant are so lovable you don’t mind that he’s making a blemish to this perfection.
The next episode in this stanza is The Gal Who Got Rattled with Zoe Kazan as Alice Longabough. This twist on a wagon train west demonstrates the vulnerability and currency of unmarried women in the 19th century.
And finally, The Mortal Remains could be a tale of travellers bound by a common recent encounter with death. But equally, it could be a projection of the death coach in folklore with Death at the reins. Brendan Gleeson’s bounty hunter, who is along for the ride, sings a goosebump-inducing ditty that cuts through the facade of reality.
With any collection of tales you inevitably play favourites. While the central stories only have flecks gold, the bookend tales of Buster Scruggs are as divinely silly and sage as anything the Coens have produced.