If there’s one thing that anyone can be certain of in life, it’s that death will happen no matter how well we live or however good we might be as people. It’s indiscriminate, and in the case of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the latest release from Joel and Ethan Coen, comes in all shapes and sizes.
There’s no better way to depict the different portrayals and takes on death, than through an anthology of stories wildly varying in tone. From the blood-free Hollywood Golden Age cowboy musical, to the black comedy of a bank job gone wrong, to a romantic tragedy against the Oregon Trail, the Coen Brothers have run the gamut of cinema to deliver a simple message: everyone dies in the end.
It’s a bit bleak, sure, but rather than wallow in the futility of life – that’s really not the Coens’ thing anyway – the intent here seems to be that by making death such a matter-of-fact thing, the importance instead shifts to the life that carries on around it. There’s a sequence about halfway through, involving Tom Waits as a grouchy prospector, that takes this literally: the wildlife of the frontier makes itself scarce before the humans come along, and returns to its normal routine after the story’s events have concluded.
As with most anthologies, there are peaks and valleys in quality amongst the different tales. It’s a testament to the Coen Brothers’ storytelling that the valleys are still perfectly decent here, at worst the differences in pacing from adventure to adventure can make one or two of the films drag in their build-up, where others hit the ground running. The final sequence, while full of typical dry humour and engaging characters, is probably the weakest link of the 6 presented here being otherwise light on substance in comparison.
When at its best, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has moments of genuinely breathtaking storytelling. To go into details would be rich with spoilers, but the sequence starring Liam Neeson as the owner of a down-on-his-luck travelling show, and Harry Melling as his star attraction is not only a beautifully shot and edited film, but probably the darkest story I’ve not seen outside of a series of Black Mirror or Inside No. 9.
As with the other recent Western-influenced productions from Joel and Ethan Coen, there’s no shortage of style or directorial flair: in fact this might be one of the best looking films they’ve ever made. A lot of that is almost certainly down to the money Netflix pumped into Buster Scruggs, as they continue their efforts to become established as a major player on the feature film front. It’ll be interesting to see how Netflix presents this, whether they release it as the full feature or as segments to be seen at the viewer’s leisure.
In this writer’s opinion, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs deserves to be watched entirely, and if possible in a proper cinema auditorium – it’s a film that warrants the best possible quality sound and vision available. The advent of film on demand is a wonderful thing, but when it comes to this film, you owe it to yourself to seek it out rather than suffer it to fester in the ‘continue watching’ section for months on end.