The announcement that the Coen brothers were working on a project and that it was TV series, seemed slightly out of character for the duo who weren’t involved with the Fargo series, inspired by their award winning 1996 film and haven’t shown interest or even an inkling that TV interested them. With further new that it was an anthology series, long time Coen fans began to narrow their eyes. Something still didn’t feel right. Finally, when the anthology film was revealed and the Coens stated that it was always going to be a film, everything fell into place. With six stories to tell over two hours, it was clear this was going to be familiar and unusual territory for the brothers and Coen enthusiasts alike.
Six very different Western set tales, taking place in well known settings and following typical themes of the genre, but somehow still like they’ve all been twisted by the Coens’ writing. Opening with the man of the title, a guitar playing, song singing outlaw who rides the typical ‘good guy’s’ horse but guns people down without breaking a sweat. The stories in the middle, the bank robber who ends up wrongly accused of another crime, the partnership with a sinister end, the girl who travels across country in a wagon train to an uncertain future and the lone prospector determined to find his gold. Ending on the most deliciously chilling story of group of strangers travelling in stagecoach, unclear of the true nature of the journey.
Cleverly playing on nostalgia for the ‘ole west and the fact that people love telling stories, stories that feel like they’ve been passed down generations, the Coens don’t present each story in their anthology as its own film, they make it clear that what we’re watching are stories. A cloth bound book, with its contents and index of painted colour illustrations hints to what will come next. Using the literal chapters of the book to separate the stories on screen. The Coen brothers have always been master storytellers and ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs & other stories’ is new way to tell stories. Having used the ‘western’ genre in previous films such as No Country For Old Men and True Grit, both adaptations, their love of the genre even crept into Hail Caeser!, it seems with this anthology that they were able to create their version of what a Western would look like and its dark.
Unlike their last film, Hail Caeser! an aptly star studded cast was needed to portray Hollywood, there are less ‘big’ named actors, with James Franco appearing in the shortest story of the film, ‘In Near Algodones’ and Liam Neeson barely saying a word in ‘Meal Ticket’, the glory goes to the likes of Tim Nelson Blake’s Buster Scruggs who learn to sing, play guitar and ride a horse at the same time, as well as learning how to shoot and twirl guns, he impresses as he brings humour to the bloody beginning as well as perfect suit for the singing bandit. Zoe Kazan also stands out and not only for being the only woman to headline a story in the film as ‘The Gal who Got Rattled’, but being the picture perfect as woman of the west. Tom Waits carries his entire story, and manages to create such brilliant drama between him and ‘Mr Pocket’. But it is the final story, ‘Mortal Remains’ that is the most atmospheric, chilling and brilliant written story of the whole film. Intrigue created, fate hinted at, its never quite clear what will happen/happened to the passengers of the stagecoach but its mystery you can decide for yourself.
Each story builds on the other, weaved together carefully like a classic mix tape. Careful to place stories at the right point. There is dark humor, skittish characters, violence abound with little sentiment, care or even affection. The Coens aren’t here to tell nice stories round the campfire. With six Westerns for the price of one, there might have been danger they had tried to cram too much into a short time but they spend time on a character, staying with them until they believe its time to end.
Whether you like the Coen brothers or not, of if you really love Westerns or not, there is a story in this anthology film to be appreciated and enjoyed by anyone who’s looking for something unusual, or just a really great story.
Dir: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Prd: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Megan Ellison, Sue Naegle, Robert Graf
Scr: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cast: Tim Blake Nelson, Liam Neeson, James Franco, Zoe Kazan, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Tom Waits, Willie Watson, David Krumholtz, Stephen Root, Ralph Ineson, Harry Melling
DoP: Bruno Delbonnel
Music: Carter Burwell
Running time: 132 minutes
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is currently on Netflix