Movie Review: THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS

By Josh Morris

Upshot: This film, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, is comprised of six short stories set in the West during the Victorian Era. These stories are presented as “chapters,” but as a narrative are essentially unconnected. Though flawed, the film is expertly crafted by the Coen Brothers and will be considered among their greatest achievements. They blend violence and dark humor with wit and deliberation. There’s even some fantastic songs mixed in for good measure.

High-point: Chapter Three, entitled “Meal Ticket,” is set in winter and captures the harshness of the American Wilderness. It deals with themes such as the role of the artist in society, the decline of art via entertainment as well as humanity’s struggle to survive. Here the Coens center on a travelling, limbless orator (Harry Melling) — showcased as The Wingless Thrush — who has a unique relationship with his stage manager and caretaker (Liam Neeson). Melling is best known for playing Dudley in the Harry Potter films, but gives an award-caliber performance as the orator; physical, vocal and expressive, he excels in acting styles for both the stage and screen. A hearty “hurrah” to you, Mr. Melling!

Low-point: Chapter Six, entitled “The Mortal Remains,” is inferior in every way to the other five segments: the set design feels inauthentic, and the cinematography is too confined. This segment is dialogue-heavy, but not emotional or sufficiently deep. Beyond that, the themes explored are not engaging and the ending comes too abruptly, though some unexpected humor and decent acting shine through (mainly from an under-used Brendan Gleeson). Overall, Chapter Six is not without merit, it’s simply a weak ending to an otherwise lively anthology; like finding a rusty penny on a payday– you may feel shorted.

Rundown: The Coens, who are familiar with the Western genre, re-imagine bits from the West to explore current issues. For example, when a lonesome Prospector (played by a extraordinary Tom Waits) disrupts the harmony of a river valley, his search for gold becomes a subtle but stern statement on humanity’s treatment of the planet. Indeed, throughout the anthology “The West” itself morphs into an allegory for the inevitable passing away of all things (people, styles and contexts) and their inevitable replacements; all things except, perhaps, human nature and our need for stories:

“[A]nd that will be another story– different, yet the same.”
“[We] all love hearing about ourselves. So long as the people in the stories are us, but not us.”

The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel is jaw-dropping. Though these stories are only loosely connected by the Western setting, each of them required a specialized look; a distinct feel that Delbonnel — who worked with the Coens on Inside Llewyn Davis — captures along with the beauty of the Western landscape. Delbonnel was nominated for his fifth Academy Award last year for The Darkest Hour …. He should at least be nominated again for “Buster Scruggs” and perhaps win.

This film is currently available to stream on Netflix, but if you have the ability to watch it on the big-screen, I would absolutely recommend doing so.

 

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