The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the latest film from Joel & Ethan Coen, arrives on Friday 16th November amid a flurry of Oscar buzz.
Originally intended as a six-episode limited series, the Netflix original has instead been shaped into a 132-minute feature made up of six different stories.
Along with Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, it has emerged as one of Netflix’s strongest hopes during awards season, as the streaming service bids for a coveted Best Picture Oscar win.
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Taken together, the six chapters paint a bleak, vivid picture of the Old West – but there is little to connect them, beyond a dab of nihilism, the cinematic sheen of Bruno Delbonnel (who served as director of photography on all six) and the Coen brothers’ trademark dark wit.
In its brightest moments, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a reminder of the power of short-form cinema. At its worst, it’s… really quite dull.
In fact, despite the awards excitement, it may well have worked best as a series – if only to be able to pick and choose which stories to stream first.
To that end, we’ve attempted to rank the six segments that make up The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – from worst to best.
6. The Mortal Remains, starring Brendan Gleeson, Tyne Daly and Sal Rubinek – 4/10
It’s a shame, really, that the Coens, who have drawn career-defining performances out of the likes of Jeff Bridges, Frances McDormand, William H Macy and Javier Bardem in the past, have underused Brendan Gleeson so much here.
The Irish veteran is a perfect fit for the kind of bleak humour the Coens revel in, given his work in dark comedies like The Guard, Calvary and In Bruges. Yet in The Mortal Remains, the underwhelming final act in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a tepid wagon ride with his bounty hunter pal and four strangers provides him with little opportunity to shine.
Instead, the floor is ceded to his companions, who ultimately don’t have much to say. They did give the Dub a chance to sing a lovely tune, though, so some points have been awarded.
5. The Gal Who Got Rattled, starring Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck and Grainger Hines – 5/10
Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick) is a delight, but not even she can save this tale of an ill-fated journey across the country, in which she plays an Episcopalian young woman who gets into a whole heap of trouble en route to meet her husband-to-be.
There’s a cute yapping dog, an ambush by pillaging Indians (the film’s second), a short-lived love story and some beautiful shots of the Wild West – but not much else. The painful and affecting twist at the end arrives too late to salvage waning interest.
4. Near Aldogones, starring James Franco and Stephen Root – 7/10
James Franco plays the lead character in Near Aldogones, but the real star is Stephen Root (Barry), as a nervously talkative teller in an empty bank in the middle of nowhere. Deeply excited at the chance to spill his guts to a rare customer, Root has the rug pulled from under him when the robber (Franco) makes his intentions clear.
But as soon as the teller – who at one stage rushes out at Franco with a bunch of pans strapped to his body for protection – leaves the story, it struggles to retain the same energy, and trundles towards its grim conclusion.
3. All Golds Canyon, starring Tom Waits – 8/10
You can sit through the entirety of this visually-stunning segment – about an ageing gold prospector who digs his way through a valley in the pursuit of precious – without clocking that the actor at its centre was Tom Waits.
The gravelly-voiced singer is transformed and quietly endearing as a bushy-bearded man working tirelessly towards a seemingly futile and ultimately pointless goal. Like Sisyphus pushing a rock up a hill, in beautiful surroundings.
2. Meal Ticket, starring Liam Neeson and Harry Melling – 8/10
On enjoyment alone, Meal Ticket probably would have come in just behind All Golds Canyon, but on reflection, it’s actually the part of the movie that has lingered the longest.
Liam Neeson stars as an impresario who travels around small communities staging shows for Harrison (played, remarkably, by Harry Mellor AKA Dudley Dursley from the Harry Potter films), an actor and quadruple amputee. That is, until the well runs dry, and people stop turning up. Neeson gives his most nuanced performance for some time as an opportunistic, selfish drunk who takes advantage of his handicapped companion. The ending is heartbreaking, and strangely poetic.
1. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, starring Tim Blake Nelson – 9/10
It may only be 17 minutes long, but The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – the sequence, that is – is one of the most wildly entertaining pieces of cinema of the year.
That is predominantly down to the gun-slinging, fourth-wall breaking balladeer at the heart of the story. Tim Blake Nelson’s Buster Scruggs, the “West Texas Tit”, arrives into a small town where the majority of the inhabitants seem to want him dead. It’s an incredibly charismatic performance, carrying a slight narrative brilliantly on sequinned shoulders.
There’s a kill scene that is at once absurd, hilarious and genuinely impressive. Placed as it is at the beginning of the anthology, it sets an unreasonably high standard that is never quite matched, but it makes the less interesting bits worth it.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is out in UK cinemas now, and will be released on Netflix on Friday 16th November