Film Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs shows Coen Brothers at their very best

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After going against the grain with their beautifully made but uncharacteristically straight western True Grit, the unorthodox Coen brothers offer up this witty, ironic, outrageously funny and achingly sad collection of western stories, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, writes Natalie Stendall.

Originally planned as a six-part series, the transformation of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs into a feature film shows the Coens (Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Hail Caesar!) at their very best. Watched consecutively, the six vignettes take us on a formidable and somewhat knotty journey through the human experience.

The film is soaked in western lore, each segment immersed in a different aspect of the wild west.

Expert storytellers, the Coens are never rushed by the limited time in which to tell their tales, revealing the lengthy process of prospecting gold and the tedium of touring a one-man show. The landscapes reveal the Coens’ deep connection with the western genre. So too do neat references to to the world of True Grit.

The film opens by sending up the genre with riotous, slapstick violence and satirical ballads performed by well-dressed cowboy Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson). His immaculate appearance belies his gunslinging prowess. His songs Cool Water and When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings, penned by the actor himself, are both well worthy of the Oscars’ Best Original Song.

From this comic peak, we descend into life’s gloomy depths. The five remaining stories are often bleak but pose fascinating questions about humanity. Just when the characters are on the cusp of success, life tends to deal them a cruel blow.

But the film’s ironic twists and reversals of fate aren’t only for doling out tragedy or just deserts, they reveal human truths - from the perils of being too afraid, to the commercial value of human life.

High-calibre performances keep the momentum going, smoothing over the potential lull between the stories. Liam Neeson is delightfully inscrutable and Brendon Gleeson relishes the irreverence of his unlikely bounty hunter, but it’s the performance of relative newcomers that becomes most potent.

The desolate story of Harry Melling’s quadriplegic dramatist is exceptionally hard to shake. And rising star Zoe Kazan’s warm and sanguine portrayal of a dependent woman cast adrift makes us lament the lack of female stories in the bunch.

The Coens cleverly set the final tale in a claustrophobic stagecoach at sunset, the approaching darkness bringing with it a sense of dread borrowed from the horror genre. As a group of strangers engage in a fierce conversation about human nature, the film’s rich themes come together. Life is cruel and unfathomable, never quite what you expect but, then again, so are we.