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Anthology films are hard to get right. All too often they fall into a hit-and-miss structure where only some of the segments are worthy of your time, the rest either filling space or wasting a potentially interesting premise due to its short runtime. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a western anthology from directors Joel and Ethan Coen, falls into many of the same problems. A shame, since the previous times the Coens’ tackled this genre they produced two of their greatest films, No Country for Old Men and True Grit. I don’t think there’s any other way to review an anthology than give mini reviews for each of the stories, so here goes.
The opening tale, the titular Ballad of Buster Scruggs, follows our eponymous hero, the singing cowboy of the Wild West, as he finds himself in one shootout after another, never once losing his cheerful attitude or his love for a song. Tim Blake Nelson is excellent in the lead role, and with gunfights and musical numbers a plenty, along with a healthy dose of surreal humour, it’s by far the strongest segment in the film.
Near Algodones is another strong segment, featuring James Franco as a would-be bank robber with a knack for dodging nooses. It feels the most like a traditional western and contains the film’s strongest action scene in a brief, but bloody, fight between a group of cowboys and Comanche warriors. The humour here is much more understated, epitomised by the final scene, one of the most darkly funny things the Coens’ have ever filmed.
Meal Ticket is the first dip in quality. It features a mildly interesting premise, following an aging impresario and his artist, a man with no arms or legs, but because of the anthology setup the characters lack development and the plot feels rushed. The ending doesn’t have even close to the amount of build-up needed for it to have the intended effect.
All Gold Canyon is fine. It’s a very traditional ‘middle of an anthology film’ segment: perfectly watchable, doesn’t outstay it’s welcome and could easily be cut without much loss. Beautiful scenery, though, wonderfully shot by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel.
The Gal Who Got Rattled is the longest segment, clocking in around forty minutes, and that is the completely wrong length; it should be either fifteen minutes or two hours. There are too many plotlines fighting for attention with not enough time to develop them all fully, leading to a story that doesn’t seem to have any idea what it’s about.
The Mortal Remains is a complete snooze-fest; twenty minutes of people riding in a stagecoach, featuring a criminally underused Brendan Gleeson who spends most of his screen time staring into space, as the Coens’ seem to have suddenly started taking lessons from the tell don’t show school of writing. What a terrible way to end a film.
Overall, a mixed bag. The film’s major problem is it peaks too early, with almost every segment being worse than the previous one, so by the end you’re completed exhausted. At its best it’s among the best work the Coens’ have ever done. At its worst it borders on a chore to sit through. If two of these stories went (tales four and six for my money) and the remaining stories allowed more time to breathe, I have no doubt this would be a more positive review. The Coen Brothers’ are talented filmmakers, here’s hoping this is just a temporary fluke.