Directed, written and produced by the Coen brothers, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a spontaneous film with a freeing tone. It’s pleasurable to watch as a result of the effort and care that has been put into making it. There are moments of levity and absurdity, with singing and fourth wall breaks: This is particularly true of the opening section with Tim Blake Nelson’s Buster Scruggs. While whimsical, the film does have a deeper core. The film is composed of six tales that seemingly have no relation to each other. The use of this format means that certain things are left unexplained and yet the film grants the viewer all that is needed for them to feel that the characters and spaces have been explored to a satisfying degree. In fact, some stories felt slightly dragged out, making the film feel longer and quite heavy at times. But this is only a minor complaint in a film that had the gravitas and weight of an epic, which is impressive considering the structure of the film. The film could have felt very incoherent and choppy due to the change in focus, but instead the glimpses we were afforded into these places and characters seems to blend into the overall piece, and thus the film does not feel jarring. Having already directed No Country For Old Men (2007) and True Grit (2010), The Coen brothers utilised a raw and gritty nineteenth century Western tone for this film also. The Western genre is fully explored through the use of sub-genres, and thus every story has its own identity while still being a part of the whole.
Stylistically the film feels authentic, due to the set design and production. Scenes felt grounded in this regard and I particularly enjoyed the aesthetic of the tale ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled’. This tale and the performances of Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck and Grainger Hines, I found to be the most engrossing plot wise, but every tale has a different appeal. The actors throughout did a superb job, were well cast and everyone involved gave what the film required of them. As there is a range in stories, there is also a range in tone and different tales require different things from the actors, depending on the mood and characterisation of the tale. There is a variety of personas, from humorous to sordid, and everything in between. The cast is star-studded and includes the following: Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, Tyne Daly, Stephen Root, Saul Rubinek, Harry Melling, James Franco and many more. The personality of the film definitely shines through the great performances, which burst with charisma. Some characters feel like caricatures, intense and extreme stereotypes, while others feel realistic.
The charm of the film and an element that makes it feel original, is how music is used by composer Carter Burwell. The music adds to the texture of the film and to its playfulness. This is also manifest through scenes of chaos, irony and over the top violence that predominantly mark the first part of the film. This light-hearted tone contrasts nicely with the deadpan elements of the piece and the darker tones that are also present. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an enjoyable watch and has something for everyone. It’s definitely worth a watch if you’re in the mood for a well shot Western, with theatrical expansive subjects and humour.