What: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)
Where: GU Film House Adelaide
When: 12 and 18 October 2018
How much: $16-20 (see webpage for details)
Let me preface this review by saying that I love the Coens, and am not exactly an objective reviewer (if such a thing is even possible). But I also can recognise that a) not everyone loves their films, and b) their films usually need to be watched a few times to actually sink in. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs continues this tradition – I’m very excited for it to begin screening on Netflix so I can rewatch it and fully soak it all up, as I walked away with as many new questions as I had going in.
From the outset, it’s very strange seeing the Netflix logo on a big screen (although this is something we’re all increasingly going to become used to, I’m sure). This slightly jarring moment in fact carries through the whole film. Made up of six shorts (rather than one continuous narrative), the film changes tack just as you’re coming to grips with each new story. Beginning with a story about the titular character, Buster Scruggs, the film also covers a bank robbery gone wrong, a tragic travelling road show, a gold-panner, a wagon train travelling to Oregon, and a Gothic coach trip. The casting of this broad-ranging characters is eclectic – if you look at the IMDB page it reads like a who’s who of celebrity character actors. While Tim Blake Nelson’s Buster Scruggs is clearly the face of the film, no one truly rises to the top as the outright star. This is very much an ensemble film. While part of the fun is discussing which of the stories you liked or didn’t like after with your friends, that’s not necessarily the point. These vignettes each open up a new facet of life in the West, with the Coens’ trademark cynicism and absurd humour.
The intersection between the short form narrative and the cynicism of the Coens’ oeuvre is intriguing in light of the final story. One of the men in the coach, Thigpen (played by Jonjo O’Neill) says: “People are so easily distracted. So I’m the distractor, with a little story. People can’t get enough of them, because, well, they connect the stories to themselves, I suppose. And we all love hearing about ourselves. So long as the people in the stories are us. But not us.” It’s hard not to read this as the Coens commenting on their own audience, and the (non)escapist nature of their work: these stories, no matter how fantastical, horrible, tragic, violent, or obscene are about us – but not us.
(Watch the film trailer here)