The last time Joel and Ethan Coen hitched their wagon to the western genre it was, in some ways, an attempt to right Hollywood’s wrongs. Their 2010 version of True Grit (nominated for 10 Oscars but winner of none) was a markedly different beast to the comparatively clean-cut 1969 movie starring John Wayne, and much closer in tone and atmosphere to the Charles Portis novel published the previous year.
In this elegant anthology of frontier tales, however, the Coens celebrate celluloid cowboys of varying stripe, from crooners with extraordinary gunslinger skills and wisecracking outlaws living and dying by the noose to grizzled prospectors risking their all in the pursuit of gold and shabby travelling showmen on the lookout for the next big crowd-pleaser. Along the way they indulge in the outlandish humour of Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles, present laugh-filled twists on the bloodiness of Sam Peckinpah and frame some of the vignettes in the sweeping vistas of classic John Ford, all presented on a canvas that remains distinctly “Coen-esque.”
The original plan was to produce six individual episodes for a Netflix TV series, and while any of these half-dozen stories would have thrived in isolation, there is a pleasing flow to watching them all in one sitting. On screen, they are linked by an unknown hand turning the pages of a weighty hardback book, but there is no other crossover of characters or situations, save for the cold spectre of death that looms large in each.
Although the opening comic yarn starring Tim Blake Nelson as a singing prairie hero in a white Stetson gives the film its potentially misleading title, it’s hardly typical of what follows, but then again nothing is. The Coens masterfully flit from jet-black drama to tear-stained sentimentality to ruthless savagery to ambiguous morality, while keeping a tight rein on every surprising narrative.
Nelson’s Buster Scruggs is perhaps a close cousin to Hobie Doyle, the well-meaning hick star of horse operas played by Alden Ehrenreich in their 2016 comedy Hail Caesar!, but more likely templates would be high-in-the-saddle balladeers like Tex Ritter or Roy Rogers. In the second chapter, “Near Algodones”, James Franco takes his lead from Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name for a sly and witty spin on spaghetti westerns, while Tom Waits channels gnarly Walter Huston (from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) in “All Gold Canyon”, based on a short story by Jack London.
The Coens come closest to their vision of True Grit in “The Gal Who Got Rattled”, with Zoe Kazan as a young innocent exposed to the harsh reality of frontier life, much like the character of Mattie Ross in that earlier film. It’s a story full of heartbreak with little promise of a happy ending, as is the case in “Meal Ticket” – a chilling two-hander with Liam Neeson as a taciturn impresario and Harry Melling as his limbless sideshow attraction.
If all the above can be connected in any way (and admittedly it’s a stretch), the final offering “The Mortal Remains” arguably serves, like Jeff Bridges’s rug in The Big Lebowski, to tie the room together. Five disparate travellers on a stagecoach, including Tyne Daly and Brendan Gleeson, exchange opinions on the nature of humankind, in a wordy scene that recalls the first half of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. What awaits them when they reach their destination? Don’t expect the Coens to spoon-feed us an easy answer…
Given the relatively minimal screen time each character has to establish his or herself, the sibling film-makers elicit remarkable performances from their players, all first-timers to the Coens’ world, apart from Nelson (who co-starred with George Clooney in O Brother, Where Art Thou?). Without exception, these are fully-fleshed believable people, with Neeson and Kazan in particular looking for all the world like they’ve lived in these clothes for years.
The real star, of course, is the setting itself, in all its dubious glamour, unforgiving cruelty and hard-hearted truth. This is a film made by men clearly in thrall to its allure, its mystique and its myriad possibilities to articulate the human condition, from slapstick to sombre at the spin of a spur on a boot heel.
It’s unlikely the Coens set out to do anything as arrogant as reinvent the genre, but over the space of 133 hugely entertaining minutes they display a rich understanding and affection for an evergreen arena of cinema, constantly reminding us of how the West was wonderful.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is released in cinemas on Friday 9 November and will be streamed on Netflix from Friday 16 November