The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Told as six short stories out of a battered volume found in the Old West, the Coen brothers’ latest film is an elegant pastiche, a black look at human nature and elegaic reflection on time past.

Every cliche in the Western genre is touched on in some way by these stories, and every tone is struck along the way, from comedy to violence and greed. The tales themselves last around 20 minutes each, each one finally fading back into the pages of the dog-eared volume, each one summed up by a beautiful old colour plate illustration with a single line quote from the text underneath.

We start with Tim Blake Nelson as Buster Scruggs himself in the titular tale, a white-dudded troubadour and deadly marksman in the mould of Hank Williams and Roy Rogers, “singing’ and slingin’ guns”, as he puts it. It’s a comic story, partly Blazing Saddles, but there are gruesome deaths punctuated by delightfully florid dialogue. “Things have a way of escaltatin’ out here in the West…” he tells us, just before yet another gunfight detonates.

Then comes a short story of James Franco trying to rob a bank and finding himself hanging. Next is Liam Neeson as a travelling huckster in charge of a limbless British actor ( who nightly delivers extracts of Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln and Shelley to rapt audiences of shivering townsfolk, until they lose out to more popular act – that of a chicken who can solve maths problems.

Perhaps the best segment belongs to Tom Waits, playing a ol’ timer gold prospector who pans for his fortune (“Mr Pocket”)  in an idyllic green valley, overseen by an owl and mule called Lucky. “Lumps and chunks”, he mutters as he digs, before calmly realising “we’re getting to keepers…”. I could have watched 90 minutes of Tom Waits digging and chuntering. Excellent, too, is Zoe Kazan in the very next story, playing young Alice Longabaugh, a timid woman who receives a proposal on a waggon train and is then attacked by ‘injuns’.

The final chapter is set almost entirely on a stagecoach, featuring a garrulous fur trapper, a religious woman (Tyne Daly) and a bounty hunter played by Brendan Gleeson. It ends on a ghostly and mysterious note.

The writing is smooth and delicious, the trademark irony bursts through but you never lose a sense of  respect – even affection – for the genre that built America even as the characters and action expose human themes of murder, venality and brutality, all framed by beautiful, wide open landscapes, sometimes cruel desert, sometimes stunning snow-capped peaks. Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight comes to mind, but pales in comparison. It really is a very pleasing compendium, perhaps minor in conception but always admirable in craft and impeccable in its flawless execution.