The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: Film Review

I don’t love everything Joel and Ethan Coen make. They are extremely hit and miss with me, and that’s the perfect way to describe The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – an anthology western movie telling six tales which are wildly inconsistent in tone and entertainment value.

It starts off on a high note with the title chapter starring Tim Blake Nelson, an outlaw who loves to sing and talks to the audience in an upbeat, always chipper (think Ned Flanders) demeanour, when he’s really a violent sharpshooter who shouldn’t be crossed. It is surreal, surprising, and a lot of fun, much like the second instalment starring James Franco as a man trying to rob a remote bank. Sadly, these are two of the shortest chapters in the piece and it all goes downhill from there.

We then move to the worst of the bunch – Liam Neeson starring as a man who makes money by touring the frontier with an Englishman with no arms and legs (played by Harry Melling, aka Dudley Dursley) and making him perform for audiences. I don’t want to ruin the ending, but let’s just say it’s not cool and I didn’t enjoy it one bit. Things improve with Tom Waits as a prospector, but I had stopped caring by that point, improved again with Zoe Kazan as a girl travelling to Oregon, but it was far too long, and ends on an uptick with Brendan Gleeson and a stagecoach full of oddballs. Not much point to it, but it was fun.

I just couldn’t fathom the logic behind putting these stories together. Yes, they are all westerns, but it’s very random, and not just in subject matter but in style and tone. I felt so positive with the first chapter, it is the best of them all, but I hated the third so much. It was a complete 180 degree turn to go from the wacky, tongue-in-cheek, fourth wall-breaking beginning to this serious chapter that doesn’t treat disabled people kindly. The following two are serious ones as well – it only returns to comedy with Gleeson and that was very welcome and needed.

At over two hours, the film is far too long and I reckon most people watching on Netflix will switch off or skip chapters three/four/five. One of these could have easily been cut, and the more entertaining ones should have been longer. This film had the most walkouts I’d seen during the Venice Film Festival so far and that tells you everything. It’s so bafflingly inconsistent. Watch chapters 1-2 and skip to 6, simples.

In selected cinemas from Friday 9th November before streaming on Netflix from 16th November 

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