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London Film Festival 2018: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Andrew Young gives his verdict on the latest offering from filmmaking siblings Joel and Ethan Coen

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Image: BFI London Film Festival 2018

Johnny Caspar. Marge Gunderson. Anton Chigurh. The Dude. In their decades-long careers the Coen brothers have created some pretty memorable characters. Cops, killers, lovers and fighters, all drawn with Coen wit and intelligence. Better add Buster Scruggs to that list.

Comprised of six tales of the old-style Wild West, the latest work from the Coen brothers, predictably for an anthology film, varies in quality. It starts off with 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs'itself, an absolute cracker from which things could really only get worse. A gunslinger with a guitar and a deceptively cheery demeanour, Buster Scruggs is an absolute gift of a part for Tim Blake Nelson, who absolutely nails it here. We meet Buster Scruggs as he rides his horse and sings merrily through the desert. What a nice cowboy man, we think. As soon as Buster meets some other Western reprobates, things get interesting (and very bloody). What is so hilarious and chilling about Blake Nelson's singing psychopath is how little his performance changes between sunny bantering and brutal murder. There is just enough modulation to make the character plausible, but such little change in his mood to make the character so outrageously entertaining.

The overtly comic side of the Coens continues into Near Algodones. This tale stars James Franco as a bank robber who faces rather more than he bargained for. Laced with humour and well-judged performances again, this second segment plays a bit like a longer, not quite as funny version of the first. Like the 'Buster Scruggs' story, there is a hefty amount of darkness, black humour and violence here. It is typical of the Coens' mastery at subverting genre and expectations that as their tales become more serious and sincere in tone and style, the graphic violence lessens. In their version of the Wild West, violence is a crucial tool in constructing their particular brand of comedy.

The mid-section of the film is comprised of quieter, more moving vignettes which form the bulk of the running time. In 'Meal Ticket', Harry Melling stars as a disabled orator travelling the road with Liam Neeson in an effort to survive. It's one of the bleakest things the Coens have made, with enough subtle black humour to make it an identifiably Coenesque creation. The brothers are often accused of lacking a heart but there is a melancholic emotion to this segment that could prove those critics wrong. Whilst a bit overlong, it is a nice antidote to the more flamboyant 'violence and laughs' format of the first tales.

The more conventional dramatic route is continued through 'All Gold Canyon' and 'The Gal Who Got Rattled'. The former is unlikely to be anyone's standout segment, but it has a real beauty and deep-lying sadness that makes it equally engaging as the other tales. It stars a haggard and charismatic Tom Waits in a desperate search for gold. His yearning for wealth and perhaps independence is shared by Zoe Kazan's titular 'Gal' in her tale. Kazan plays a young woman on a lengthy journey across the West in search of a fresh start in life. Romantic and, until the ending fairly conventional, it is the one segment where things drag a bit. Yet a twist of violence and that jet-black Coen humour keeps the film zipping along.

It has been said that what ties all these segments together is an examination of the act of dying. Whilst death does hang over the film like a slyly-mocking spectre, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is also about dreaming. All these characters are dreaming of achieving something, of getting somewhere, whether that be a new home, a fortune, or renown as the fastest gun in the West. The closing chapter of the Buster Scruggs story book (the tales are shown on the pages of a book as a framing device) is a physical journey, taking place almost entirely in the back of a carriage. 'The Mortal Remains' is a fitting way to end; there is a chilling quality to it that makes the prospect of Coens' ghost story an intriguing one. Jonjo O'Neill and Brendan Gleeson are terrific in delivering that devilishly wicked humour and flair that propels so much of this film.

As usual with the Coens, the quality of filmmaking in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is at such a consistent level of mastery that we perhaps take it for granted. The cinematography contains moments of great beauty, the visual flair is engaging without being obtrusive, the score is perfectly suited to the material. There is a sense whenever you are watching a Coen Brothers film that they never make mistakes. Some of their films might not have the emotional impact of others; some might be more derivative than others; some might be misjudged in certain respects. Yet there is the impression that, if you questioned them on anything, they would always have an answer. We see exactly what they intended us to see, with a level of craft that has to be admired. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, if only mid-range Coen in its lasting impact and real power, is a great example of this.

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