Buster Scruggs. The name sounds more like what you’d call a puppy rather than the name you’d give to an outlaw, but this is the Coens. This is where Buster Scruggs is actually the fastest shooter in the West and something of a blatherskite, while the only dog in the film goes by the name of President Pierce — also the 14th President of the United States. This anthology is something of a mongrel breed for the Coens, something that they haven’t tried before and that largely (if not entirely) pays off.
The title character’s business is done and dusted quite quickly, a simple tale that has an air of absurd magic and musicality. The stories together diverge from the peculiar to the sincere. While the second short, ‘Near Algodones’, has a screaming man wearing pot-pans as a suit of armour, its follow-up ‘Meal Time’ has an underwriting subtext exploring capitalism at its most exploitative and disgraceful. This is fuelled by good turns from Liam Neeson and an unrecognisable Harry Melling (Dudley from Harry Potter…yeah). The Coens’ flair for the finer details allows you to get invested in most of these characters, even if the contrasting moods between each episode can feel slightly jarring.
The Coens’ adoration for the Western is plain to see. Everything from the epic scale of John Ford to the entertainment value of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns is referenced. All the stories have that strange Coen edge to them; Tom Waits’ character in ‘All Gold Canyon’ speaking to the valley that he is sure will give him a haul of gold for example, or the preposterous fanciness of the secretive Trapper (a fantastic Chelcie Ross, who gets little time to shine but doesn’t half make use of it). It is a product of their passion, and even though an anthology format will put some people to sleep, any Coens fans out there will get much satisfaction from this.
There is a strong political and philosophical undercurrent to Buster Scruggs. Characters come out with statements or actions that feel as necessary now as they ever did back in the time of the Wild West. Typical of the brothers’ ingenuity and creative streak, however, the politics do not take centre stage. They are detectable behind irresistible choices of colour, style and characters that make each little story feel like a grand odyssey in themselves.
Its length may test your patience, but The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is quintessential Coen Brothers seen in a new way, trying something new because they can. The Coens have never set out to please anyone with their movies except themselves, which is why these cinema cowboys are so treasured.
Image: Courtesy of Netflix