The Coens’ fascinating proclivity towards counterpointing pitch-dark world views with morality, and droll humour with brutal violence, have often seen them returning to Westerns – be it in its traditional form (True Grit), or in spirit (Western elements abound in Blood Simple, The Big Lebowski, Fargo, No Country for Old Men, etc.). The anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – seeped in meditative, brooding, melancholic and cynical interpretations of the quintessentially lonely, lawless and unforgiving West – was a distinctive genre exercise, but laced with the kind of revisionism that the eccentric bothers love. The film comprises of 6 shorts of varying lengths and diverse styles – a wacky and idiosyncratic outlaw (a hokey Tim Blake Nelson) whose melodic crooning masks his sociopathic gun-slinging (reminded me of The Proposition, which too brilliantly captured these seemingly opposing traits); a ludicrously unlucky bank robber (a deadpan James Franco) who keeps moving from the frying pan to fire; a glum, laconic traveling impresario (a feral Liam Neeson) whose objet d’art is an armless, legless guy (Harry Melling) who can recite from Shelly’s Ozymandius to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, in arguably the darkest tale of the lot; a grizzly, solitary prospector (an insane Tom Waits) obsessed with striking “gold”; a lonely woman (a sad-eyed Zoe Kazan) who finds tentative love while on a wagon trail to Oregon; a group of surly fellow-travelers in a stagecoach (a fabulous ensemble of Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Saul Rubinek, Chelcie Ross, Jonjo O’Neill) whose casual conversations turn increasingly testy and heated. Though perhaps lacking in consistency and cohesiveness, the Coens, in this harsh and gorgeously photographed film, never failed to evoke despair and wry chuckles in equal measures like only they can.
Director: Ethan & Joel Coen
Genre: Western/Psychological Western/Revisionist Western/Anthology Film