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FNE at Venice 2018: Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

2018-09-01
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, dir. Ethan & Joel Coen The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, dir. Ethan & Joel Coen

VENICE: The Coen brothers have scored a slot in the main Venice Film Festival competition with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs which despite beginning life as a Netflix series is slated for theatrical release after the festival. 

There was considerable controversy during this year’s Cannes Film Festival over whether Netflix productions qualified for the official competition but Venice has embraced such productions with five films with Netflix involvement screening in different parts of the official programme.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggsis a six-part Western anthology film, a series of tales about the American West circa 1850s with each tale chapter tells a distinct story about the American West. There is no attempt to hide the fact that these are episodes of a series but the various stories are strung together with the theme of different ways to meet death and beautiful artwork between each episode. The episodes are definitely a an uneven quality and while some deliver the Coen brothers signature creative touch others come up short of their best work.

The first episode which also gives the film its name is titled The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and features Tim Blake Nelson as an insanely violent Roy Rogers style singing cowboy named Buster.  In this hilarious episode the hero is dressed in white and croons his way through cowboy songs and appears to be an easy going good guy.  He strolls into a typical movie style Western saloon bar full of outlaws and orders a whiskey.  When the bar refuses to serve him he immediately shoots everyone in the bar. Then just carries on singing and grinning.  Next the shooting, blood and violence continue at a poker game where our cowboy hero keeps on killing and singing.

The next episode it titled Near Algodonesand stars James Franco as a character called Cowboy who is a bank robber who comes to a bad end giving the Coen brothers the chance to show us a bad guy lynched from a tree.

Next up is Liam Neeson turning in an oddball gritty performance as the impresario of a touring show in an episode titled Meal Ticketwhere more Western clichés kick in for this brutal take on P T Barnum and a show with a freak played by Henry Melling.

The next episode titled All Gold Canyonis probably one of the best with Tom Waits playing an old prospector panning for gold in a beautiful part of the West.

For the fifth episode titled The Gal Who Got Rattledstars Zoe Kazan as a girl travelling out to Oregon who ends up on a wagon train in dire straits. 

And finally the Coens tie up the very funny and violent meditation on death with the last episode titled The Mortal Remains with three geezers on a stage coach in what is mostly dialogue.  Chelcie Ross plays a blabber mouth trapper, Tyne Daly a difficult and irritating guy and Saul Rubinek a Frenchman.  All three are on a one way trip to death although they don’ t know it yet.

The film is beautifully shot on Western locations in Colorado and New Mexico and Western fans will recognise Monument Valley the backdrop to some many classic American Westerns.  The stock characters of cowboys, Indians, outlaws and every other Western cliché character are all there and the Coen brothers manage to both play them for laughs and at the same time pay homage to a genre they clearly love. As for the cast of actors the anthology obviously gave the Coens the chance to recruit a lot of their favourite talent for an enjoyable series of romps.  While the film may not stand alongside the Coen brothers best work it is still an enjoyable experience for those who appreciate their own brand of very strange humour.

Credits: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (USA)

Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

Cast: Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Bill Heck, Zoe Kazan, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson

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