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'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs': Must-watch western from Coen brothers

Nicholas Aditya Dharmadi
Nicholas Aditya Dharmadi

Loves everything film, literature and sometimes philosophy

Jakarta  /  Mon, December 3, 2018  /  05:15 pm

In the latest film by the Oscar-winning writer-director duo, the Coen brothers have assembled a collection of six separate stories into a cohesive western that is at times comical and heartfelt, violent and tranquil, morbid and uplifting. Altogether, this anthology film paints as vivid a picture of the American Old West as any audience could hope for.

The Coen brothers, whose acclaimed works have ranged from the Oscar-winning crime drama No Country for Old Men ( 2007 ) to the Hollywood comedy Hail Caesar! ( 2016 ), once again explore the western genre after True Grit ( 2010 ), which earned them 10 Oscar nominations. In The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, they play much more explicitly with conventions of the genre, exploring six different types of western film each in a self-contained story.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs stars Tim Blake Nelson, Zoe Kazan, Brendan Gleeson, Tom Waits, Liam Neeson and James Franco in lead roles. This ensemble cast of well-known actors and not-exactly-household names is brought together under precise direction and writing that was awarded Best Screenplay at the 2018 Venice Film Festival.

Take for example the eponymous first story, where the harmonious combination of the two is immediately apparent. Having worked with the Coens in the musical comedy O Brother Where Art Thou? ( 2000 ), Nelson’s signature crooning singing voice is on display again, as he plays the title role of the singing, joking gunslinger Buster Scruggs. This story is in many ways the most daring, as it is certainly the most ridiculous, potentially alienating audiences right out of the gate. However, it becomes immediately obvious that Buster Scruggs’ comically violent exploits and regular asides to the audience only serve to enhance the absurd comedy. As the first story tells, it immerses the audience by showing them an intentionally exaggerated depiction of Old West outlaws, at the same time capturing the tragic side of a world where the next bad poker game could mean your death.

This morbid comedy in which the Coens excel is also prominent in the second short, “Near Algodones”. Thematically similar to the first, it illustrates the inevitability of consequences among outlaws, from the perspective of James Franco as an aspiring thief unfazed by the dire circumstances he keeps finding himself in.

However, it is the final short “The Mortal Remains” that truly shines. Taking place entirely inside a carriage, it tells the story of three strangers, each with their own views on human nature. Bonded by the carriage they share with an ominous foreign duo, the three colorful characters balance the decidedly supernatural tone with humorous insights; a fitting end to the film’s six stories, all united by death.

Also noteworthy is the score, which is era-appropriate but is most notable in “Buster Scruggs”. After all, it is a singing cowboy movie and Nelson’s performance pairs excellently with the whimsical nature of his songs, albeit funny or solemn. The attention to detail in the soundtrack is reflected in “All Gold Canyon”, an uplifting tale of adversity, which showcases vistas of natural beauty, accompanied by a powerful score. This one-man show by Tom Waits certainly displays his acting ability, as he portrays an aged prospector in a solitary search for gold among untouched nature. 

Similarly heartwarming is “The Girl who Got Rattled”, a covered wagon story about a young woman’s (Zoe Kazan) migration along the famous Oregon Trail and the budding romance she fosters with the cowboy who guards the wagon train. It becomes more impactful when the same tragic element of death, present in every short, rears its head. However, the most heart-wrenching tale is clearly “Meal Ticket”, the story of the struggles of an impresario (Liam Neeson) and the narrator (Harry Melling) to earn money. It deals with the harsh realities of show business, the limits of human compassion in the face of desperation and is as much a story of survival as any that pits man against nature.

While some may find these self-contained tales less emotionally satisfying than the buildup offered by a feature length film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is best appreciated as a whole picture rather than a collection of disparate stories. In this way it is more than the sum of its parts, and definitely worth a watch. (wng)

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Nicholas Aditya Dharmadi is a 17-year-old who loves everything film, literature and sometimes philosophy. He is an aspiring writer, actively learning and teaching creative writing, hoping to develop his own talent as well as that of the students in his school.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.