This one has been percolating in the minds of The Coen Brothers for a very long time. 25 years to be exact. What started as a six-part series in conjunction with Annapurna Television and Netflix has now been condensed into a concise Western anthology called The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The film premiered to mostly-positive praise at the Venice International film festival and took home their Best Screenplay honors. As we’ve come to expect from the brothers, the trailer reveals a playful tone running throughout a collection of violent encounters. Sign me up.
That’s a helluva distraction. Once I finished swooning over that cavalcade of actors (Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, James, Franco, Zoe Kazan, Tim Blake Nelson, Liam Neeson, Stephen Root, Saul Rubinek, and Tom Waits), the second aspect I was struck by was the dusty haze of the image. That’s not the usual Roger Deakins behind the Coens’ lens, but Bruno Delbonnel. The last time they partnered with him was for the smokey beatnik bars of Inside Llewelyn Davis. Not exactly a downgrade.
While no title cards are revealed here, we do know that the six chapters are labeled as follows: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Near Algodones, Meal Ticket, All Gold Canyon, The Gal Who Got Rattled, and The Mortal Remains. Tim Blake Nelson is the titular singing gunslinger. James Franco is a wannabe bank robber and dimwit who continually finds his neck in the noose. Liam Neeson and Harry Melling are producer vs. actor as art becomes a gothic battleground in the old west. Tom Waits loses his mind while panning for gold. Zoe Kazan finds love within the misery of a cross-country wagon trail, and Tyne Daly unleashes damnation upon the strangers that dare join her for a carriage ride.
Anthologies are tricky business. The usual critique shot their way is that they are uneven mixtures. Story A soars while Story B meanders. Of course, more often than not, cinematic anthologies are cobbled together by a diverse group of filmmakers. The Battle of Buster Scruggs has the benefit of bursting forth from one very particular point of view, and one that succeeds more often than it fails.
The last time The Coen Brothers attempted a Western setting was True Grit. That film received ten Academy Award nominations including one for Best Picture. The time before that was No Country For Old Men. That film dominated the 2007 Oscars and forever cemented itself in a rivalry with Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Masterpiece vs. masterpiece.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs does not quite look like either of their previous Western efforts. In visuals, tone, or storytelling. What we witness here in this trailer aligns more along with the awkward and often bloody comedy of Burn After Reading and The Ladykillers. Two films that were certainly not for everybody, but for the slightly more bent members in the audience like myself, they titillated the darker, more perverse recesses of the animal mind. Movies made by sickies for sickies.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs hits Netflix and a few select theaters on November 16th.