Monday, December 24, 2018

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

This is a great collection of Western Tall Tales, as only the Coen brothers could tell them. There are no other directors working today with their obvious love of storytelling for its own sake. Here, they've crafted six unique stories set in a mythical version of the Old West, tied together by their exploration of the theme of death, ranging from the comic ("The Ballad of Buster Scruggs") to the ironic ("The Gal Who Got Rattled") to the downright morbid ("Meal Ticket"). 

The Coens have an incredible gift for creating richly-drawn characters, and these stories are populated by the types who are the stuff of Western legend, acted by a talented cast including Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Stephen Root, Liam Neeson, Harry Melling, Zoe Kazan, Tom Waits, Tyne Daily, and Saul Rubinek, among others. 

Visually, the film is stunning, with breathtaking cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel rendering the sprawling scale of the Western landscapes with painterly detail. There are some shots, particularly in the segment "All Gold Canyon", that are so rich that the images seem to pop right off the screen, aided by vibrant color that recalls the lush tones of the classic Hollywood Westerns of the 1950s. Also harking back to the classic Westerns is the rousing score by Carter Burwell, which perfectly evokes the majesty and epic qualities of the West.

There is some unevenness between the stories, which is understandable given that the project was initially commissioned by Netflix as a series. At some point, the decision was made to bring all of the segments together to create an anthology film, a kind of cinematic storybook. This approach works well enough, with each story given its own chapter in an on-screen book with accompanying illustrations to represent each tale. At a total running time of almost two-and-a-quarter hours, the segments could also be enjoyed individually, just as one might read a collection of short stories.

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