A wanted sharp-shooter arrives at a busy saloon. A cowboy attempts to rob a small bank. A young limbless orator travels with his ageing, opportunistic handler. An old prospector searches for a hidden gold pocket. A betrothed woman finds herself travelling alone in a wagon train. Five strangers take a carriage ride together. These six stories make up the latest offering from the Coen brothers, a straight-to-Netflix western anthology of mostly consistent quality and impeccable casting.
First up we have the eponymous The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which sees Tim Blake Nelson’s titular chipper outlaw crooning his way around the west, killing or serenading anyone he comes across. This is perhaps the silliest and most lighthearted of the segments, and as such is one of my favourites. It helps that I love Tim Blake Nelson, especially in his previous outing with the Coens, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and this segment retains a lot of what makes O Brother fun. There’s a heightened sense of silliness mixed in with a lot – A LOT – of violence, much of it very graphic but also very entertaining, and the best use of a table I’ve seen in a long time. The songs are also terrific too, with Nelson’s southern twang shining throughout. It’s hard to dislike Scruggs, with his spotless white hat and horse, naive yet accomplished demeanour and frankly ludicrous gun-slinging abilities, and it’s a shame this whole film didn’t follow him in its entirety, but there we go.
Next up is Near Algodones, which sees a young cowboy, played by James Franco, attempting to rob a bank run by Stephen Root’s eccentric teller. Things don’t go to plan for the cowboy, and they don’t get much better as the segment progresses. This is the shortest of the shorts, and whilst my general distaste for Franco didn’t help my enjoyment I managed to look beyond that personal bias and found this to be a fun downward spiral. Of the Coens’ work it’s probably most akin to something like A Serious Man, where our hero is beset upon by a series of dilemmas and misfortunes, or maybe Raising Arizona in terms of its cartoonish sense of luck. Moral-wise it’s the slightest of the stories, but it’s not unwelcome.
Meal Ticket sees an aging stagehand (Liam Neeson) travelling the west with his limbless performing orator (Harry Melling, Dudley Dursley from the Harry Potter franchise), who recites speeches and famous texts, with Neeson providing sound effects and requesting donations afterwards. It’s a slow and depressing tale, with little to enjoy beside Melling’s wonderfully emotive voice and some surprisingly underplayed work from Neeson, who had a pretty good year acting-wise in 2018. There are parallels that can be drawn between Neeson’s character and the studio system, sticking with genres only whilst they remain popular, and if something less enlightening but more likeable comes along, no matter how silly, then so be it, that’s the new direction. Of the six this is perhaps the weakest segment, and I’m not sure to which other Coen property I’d most relate it, maybe The Man Who Wasn’t There for it’s slow pacing, but that could mainly be due to me not being a big fan of that film. That’s the thing with anthologies though, it’s rare for every story to be a winner, so if you skip this one I think you’ll be alright.
Speaking of variety in the quality of segments, next up is All Gold Canyon, which is wonderful. It sees Tom Waits playing Tom Waits if he was a prospector, panning and eventually digging for gold in a previously undisturbed and picturesque valley. Waits is pretty much the only actor on screen for the entirety of this segment, and his is a captivating performance, worthy of consideration come awards time if you ask me. It’s fascinating watching him going through the arduous process of ascertaining where an elusive pocket of gold may be hidden, all the while living rough and surviving off nature’s bounty. Most of the segments have a moral or message to them, but All Gold Canyon’s is easily the clearest, noting the toll taken upon the beauty of nature in exchange for mankind’s greed and cutthroat competition, but an obvious message doesn’t deter from the quality of the performance and the delightful scenery on display.
The penultimate segment, The Gal Who Got Rattled, stars Zoe Kazan as Alice Longabaugh, a meek woman about to depart on a wagon train to Oregon with her brother Gilbert and his dog President Pierce. In Oregon an associate of Gilbert’s is potentially due to marry Alice, but almost immediately after they set out on the journey Gilbert dies, leaving Alice in a predicament, as she has no prospects in Oregon, no money to pay their trail driver and a wagon train full of people complaining about the incessant barking of her dog. Fortunately one of the drivers, Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), takes a liking to Alice and agrees to help her out. This is easily the longest of the segments and whilst it’s often slow and largely follows a blossoming romance – far from my genre of choice – it also allows for the greatest character development of the stories, meaning the ending comes as one of the more emotive. There are many ways that a story could end in a so-called Coen-esque manner, but the conclusion of The Gal Who Got Rattled is certainly one of the most Coen-esque things I’ve ever seen.
Finally we have perhaps the most opaque and verbose segment, The Mortal Remains. Five strangers – a rambling fur-trapper (Chelcie Ross), a devout religious woman (Tyne Daly), an exacerbating Frenchman (Saul Rubinek, in his best Lumiere accent) and two men – a loquacious Englishman named Thigpen (Jonjo O’Neill) and his Irish singing and thumping companion Clarence (Brendan Gleeson) – transporting a dead body, all share a stagecoach bound for Fort Morgan, Colorado. This entire segment takes place in and around the cramped carriage as the colour scheme grows slowly darker and bluer and the quintet talk about love, religion and various other topics. Neither the true purpose of the journey or the destination are entirely spelled out, with a few options up for grabs (Are they all dead? Is Thigpen the Devil? Are all five people alternative versions of deceased characters from the five other stories?) so for some viewers this could be an unsatisfying tale to end on, but it’s the one that could spark the most conversation as to its true intentions, so placing it elsewhere in the running order could curtail that.
Whilst I didn’t love Meal Ticket or The Mortal Remains, the other four segments offer so much to enjoy or appreciate that overall this is a high recommendation from me. The acting throughout is impeccable, with many supporting cameos – Clancy Brown! David Krumholtz! Ralph Ineson! – some great tunes and wonderful scenery, as you’d expect from a Coen-directed western, and the stories, all revolving around death and the various approaches to it, are for the most part captivating and blackly comedic. I’m glad it was released straight to Netflix as I’m not sure I’d have found the time to see it in the cinema, but if you’ve got the opportunity I can only imagine it’d look even better on a giant screen. The original plan was supposedly to make this a full TV series, with a different story every episode, which I’d still like to see, especially for the first and fourth segments – I feel we saw the entire half hour of segment five – but perhaps it would’ve been a little too bleak a subject matter to return to several times, and it’s best to get it all out the way in one sitting. I’d thoroughly recommend, after the first watch, going back and watching the first story again though, just to leave it all on a slightly more upbeat note.
Choose Film 8/10