Film Festival review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Coen brothers’ six tales about the American frontier in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs are just as varied as the subject matter of their films — and whether brutal, comical, parodic or gothic, each offers something unexpected.

Oct 15, 2018, updated Oct 15, 2018

Famous for movies like Fargo and the subsequent television series adaptation of that, Ethan and Joel Coen have made a reputation from writing and directing quirky stories. This collection addresses such Western tropes as the singing gunslinger, the wagon train heading west, the hapless traveller accused of wrongdoing, and the claustrophobic stage coach.

There is comedy and tragedy, sometimes combined, and a reflection on the imminent destruction of a natural environment.

The opening story of Buster Scruggs is at once funny, cruel and philosophical. The eponymous protagonist sings and shoots and has a curiously savage charm. The ending of his tale has a surreal quality that speaks to a host of similar top-gun narratives, albeit strangely mirrored in this case.

In another story, a bank robber ricochets from success to near-death, to escape and near-death again, before an unexpected conclusion.

Competing issues of power and helplessness are played out in Meal Ticket, where a disabled orator depends on a promoter, played by Liam Neeson, to eke out a living as they move between townships. A tragic outcome is foreshadowed but not made explicit.

Tom Waits plays a prospector who intrudes on the natural environment of a mountain stream as he searches for gold, consequently introducing avarice and human brutality.

Zoe Kazan is wonderful as an innocent young go-west traveller in a convoy of wagons that collides with native Americans, providing the climax for a tragedy turned romance turned tragedy.

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Finally, a superb round of monologues in an express coach provides observations on the nature of life and death that grow increasingly otherworldly. As one character says: “People love stories — as long as the people in stories are us, and not us.” It might be a remark on the whole collection here.

You may pick favourites among the six, but there is no argument about the whole. This is an intriguing film worth watching.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is screening again this Thursday, October 18, at GU Film House in Hindley Street at part of the Adelaide Film Festival. See more Adelaide Film Festival stories and reviews here.

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