The way The Ballad of Buster Scruggs subverts any type of label is a credit to the writing ability of the Coen brothers. After 30 years of filmmaking, they have moved into new territory yet again, creating an anthology with stories that define any label or genre. Each chapters is taken from a book, where a basic visual effect is used as the cryptic words in the book fade as the desert of the West comes into focus, the mountains providing an incredible looking environment.
Chapter one of this anthology is short and gets to its point quickly. We meet Scruggs, whose singing and guitar playing is something to behold. Dressed in all white, the ‘good guy’, this chapter is filled with violence and gun-slinging, the Coens having fun and paying tribute to John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, and other classics of the genre. Of course though, there is a Coen twist to this homage.
Tim Blake Nelson is Scruggs, the singing cowboy, but when he enters a saloon, the people around him are touchy, dangerous and aren’t impressed with Scrugg’s singing. The burst of violence that soon follows is not only amazing to watch, the script is flawless as laughs are almost a guarantee: the singing cowboy cracking wise with his overly optimistic attitude while he uses his six shooter to effect. However, he then meets a fellow singing cowboy, this one dressed in all black. Played by James Franco, he nails his role in this new territory for him. The interaction and chemistry between the two is beyond interesting as we wonder how their meeting is going to end.
The chapters slowly get longer as the overall themes come into focus. The chapters are, at its core, about life and death. There is death in every chapter, while life causes the basic human instinct to fire: fight or flight, to try and survive at all costs even if violence is required. It is a constant theme that connects each short story, with a dark cloud always above.
The second chapter features Franco again, this time in a precarious position. Laughs are still apparent while again and explosion of violence hits the screen. Franco manages to free himself, only to decide to try and rob a bank.
We next see an old man hunting for gold near a river, pick and shovel in hand as he tries to track down his goal. The scene of his glimpses towards his methodical hunt is long and patient, the camera placed perfectly to capture his reactions and also what he has found. Again, this chapter ends with another violent encounter.
The next scene is rather disturbing, as Liam Neeson as an Impresario has his armless and legless (and possibly his son) perform on stage. It is another desperate need for survival as the Impresario tries to gather money from audience members, whose numbers begin to swindle. There are many scenes of the child singing the same song, showing just how many times he performs. But again, the ending of the the chapter is deeply unsettling and again displays the human instinct to survive.
Next is the best and longest chapter of the film. We see a convey of carts crossing a dry desert. A woman is heading in their direction and becomes a part of the group. The ride through the desert is long and hard, and survival instincts again take over. When native Americans attack, more violence erupts as arrows and bullets fly, with some of the violence again funny in a very black way. The chapter ends much like those that preceded it.
Lastly, a cart ride in the dark, with five strangers, is incredibly awkward and again patient as different conversations render the ride long, yet interesting. It is eventually made apparent that two of the passengers know each other, and happen to be bounty hunters. Yet again, this chapter ends on an extremely somber note that provokes discussion. This is an anthology that needs to be watched many times over. Much like many of their previous films.
Each chapter is excellent in its telling of a story within a short time, meanwhile the cinematography of both the characters and the incredible backdrops, not to mention the script, mark this as a instantly recognisable Coen film. It is new territory, and unsurprisingly the result is a success, as it is thoughtful, emotional, and certainly a step up from Hail Ceaser. This film is one of the best creations from the brothers. This is amazingly unique, unlike any film or anthology in existence.
A full sixer. Without any doubt.
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