London Film Festival: ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ Review

It’s festival season! The FilmSoc blog is covering the 62nd BFI London Film Festival (10th – 21st October), diving into the myriad of films and events on offer to deliver reviews.

Milo Garner reviews the Coen Brothers’ experimental anthology Western.

The Coen Brothers have always been filmmakers capable of great range. While their most recognisable works typically bend towards a kind of comedy, they have also successfully dabbled in the world of serious drama: a biopic in New York’s music scene; a Cold War thriller; a classic western remake. Their latest project initially seemed to be a stretch even further – a series of short films set around the wild west, each to be released as a separate episode. This ambition later retreated to the still-curious idea of an anthology film, encompassing six shorts in a single runtime. While tonally similar, these short stories would range in subject and genre in a similar setting; a playground for writer-directors so creative as the Coens. The result, however, is bland, guileless, and suggests far too much stretched from far too little.

The first entry is the Coens at their most Looney Tunes since Raising Arizona. We open to a singing cowboy on horseback, dressed in all-white and addressing the camera directly. We learn he is the eponymous Buster Scruggs, an infamous outlaw with a taste for finery. He encounters various rival bandits on the road and guns them each down in an increasingly (and surprisingly) violent fashion, and afterwards breaks spontaneously into song. There is some value to this section – the singing in particular is an inspired choice – but it also betrays issues that will become far more apparent as the film goes on. A pointlessness to proceedings prevails; besides the most basic of moral takeaways it appears to be a skit for its own sake. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, of course, until it stops being funny.

By the second entry this creeping worry becomes more fully formed. James Franco appears as a bank robber, but is stopped by a man using pans as body armour (funny). During the lynching he is then afforded, the local law are attacked by Indians, leaving him strung up with only his less-than-still horse between him and asphyxiation (funny). Then he is rescued by a herder who turns out to be a thief, ending up at the gallows again (also funny). But besides these three events, and one or two jokes thrown in between, it’s hard not to wonder where the Coens were going with this one. What could the point be, other than the haplessly simplistic “what goes around comes around”? It isn’t tight enough to justify its purely comedic existence, and has nothing to say or show otherwise. These are at best five-minute skits, but here they are stretched to twenty.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the third part, in which Liam Neeson runs a sort of freak show with one exhibit, a limbless man. The twist? Rather than show him off as grotesque and horrible, the act involves him reading extensively from classical texts, finishing on the Declaration of Independence. It’s almost funny, and maybe would have been as a short bit in The Mitchell and Webb Show. But though the punchline has been spent, the Coens march on. We follow this man and his boy across various shows as their audiences decline, his act growing stale. It goes on and on. Neeson visits a prostitute at one point, contributing nothing but a laughless joke; still it goes on. The material here is barely amusing in concept, but made all the worse by its simple lack of longevity. There is only so much that can be done with a limbless man who knows the Bible by memory; ironically, this very limitation is what the short is actually about.

The fourth part might be the only one I can say I fully enjoyed, though even then in a relative sense. It features Tom Waits as a wild-wandering prospector, and his various experiences in searching for a vein of gold. The narrative arc (it has an arc) seems intentionally trite, with Waits’ corruption of the verdant land punished both instantly and inexplicably. The combination Waits’ screen presence and the pleasant visuals make it an easy watch, and the sense that it is actually going somewhere at all is welcome and gratifying. Had it been released as a standalone short I might be more critical, but here it becomes a sort of oasis; a short that is both well-paced and containing some internal narrative interest.

In the fifth, this idea of pace is entirely discarded. It is long and meandering, a sort of Oregon Trail romance that has no real spark or narrative drive. We follow along only because we must, as a young woman who has recently lost her brother forms a sort of professional relationship with the sheriff, which eventually (and blandly) transforms into something more (or so we are told). While the vistas are beautiful (the cinematography largely is throughout), they are little compensation for a story so lacking in substance otherwise. The scope is naturally limited by nature of form, yet any hope this might be used as some kind of excuse is dashed by the ten minutes spent on a sudden attack of Indians, one that separates the two characters that have actually been defined in any significant sense. A decent action scene, but again a misuse of time and space in an already overextended episode in an overextended anthology.

The final part is perhaps a little better than this, focused entirely on a single conversation between the various inhabitants of a carriage (something the Coens have always been capable of writing), but even this, like the rest, can’t quite escape feeling just a little futile. It begs the question of what the original idea might have amounted to – would the additional time offered by standalone episodes permit further depth and development to these ideas, or would they have been stretched even thinner to compensate? Whatever the answer is, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs remains a significant misfire for the Coens – a spent six-shooter that missed every shot.


The Ballad of Buster Scruggs will be released on Netflix on November 16th. Check out the trailer below:

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