The opening of the Coen Brothers new Netflix film sees the titular warbler a-roaming the dust covered valleys of the Wild West, serenading his trusted steed Dan. There is an aura of magnificence – Tim Blake Nelson is on top form, his tune is catchy as anything, and even Dan is clopping along in time. The next 20 minutes is packed with an unfiltered amount of style, crude homages, and an abundance of hilarity, culminating in an indescribable musical performance that is nothing other than a joy to watch. What is unfortunate about Buster Scruggs is that this moment is the peak of the film, dissolving after this point into what could be considered the Coen’s worst movie in 15 years.
The rest of the film is comprised of 5 short stories, which you would be forgiven for thinking had anything to do with Buster’s plight. In actual fact they are isolated, separated by gimmicky returns to a storybook where a page is turned to start a new chapter. They vary hugely in content and tone, from a short tale of an out of luck bank robber to that of a limbless orator. There is nothing common to the sections except “The West” as a trope, which allows the Coen’s to explore stories less familiar to the big screen. There is no hero saving a village, no Man in Black (well, just the one, and very briefly). The interest lies in more everyday tales: a woman left to travel in a cattle train alone when her brother dies suddenly from cholera, or a miner relentlessly searching for a pocket of gold hidden in a hill. The episodic structure is reminiscent of 2012’s Wild Tales, so inevitably Buster Scruggs faces the same problems. With each short there are moments to enjoy, but in the end some sections fare better than others, and it is impossible not to choose favourites.
After the strong introduction, the next best part is the final one, succeeding in bookending a questionable middle with pure brilliance. “The Mortal Remains” is the Coen’s writing at its strongest – 5 characters stuck in a location with nothing to do but tell stories and argue. Both “All Gold Canyon” and “The Gal Who Got Rattled” are promising, but needed refining to make them a little more impactful. “Near Algodones” is aided by the momentum of the start of the film, but it flies by. More time could be afforded to this section, and taken from “Meal Ticket”, the third section which kills the film’s drive quicker than an injured horse being shot in the head. The picture only runs at 2 and a quarter hours but it feels like double that, and the 2 middle sections in particular drag. The dialogue is of a standard you would expect from the men behind The Big Lebowski and Fargo, but the film lacks overall structure and any meaning whatsoever. There are moments that aim for genre-poking comedy, but the quality of these jokes is closer to that of A Million Ways to Die in the West than the highs of Blazing Saddles.
The stars of the film seem deliberately underused – James Franco, Liam Neeson, Zoe Kazan and Brendan Gleeson have so much more to offer. And their lines are sacrificed in favour of lesser known performers, many of whom struggle to wow. There are certainly exceptions: Harry Melling’s manner is spot on, Stephen Root is always a pleasure, and it is as if Grainger Hines was born to play a cowboy. Most notably musician Tom Waits’ determination drives an otherwise dry part of the film. But there is miscasting at play, particularly with poor man’s Kathy Bates, Tyne Daly, and the ever wooden Bill Heck. The wild variety of performances contributes to the repeated oscillation this film undergoes: from intriguing take on a genre piece to boring, unoriginal mess.
It is in the third story that Carter Burwell’s score becomes more prominent, having been mostly of a cliched tone up to this point. The nature of the film, with such an assortment of genres packed into it, affords Burwell the opportunity to explore more than just janky saloon piano riffs and the brass and strings-based call to adventure perfected by Elmer Bernstein’s The Magnificent Seven. Sadly, Burwell wastes the opportunity, complementing the turn to snowier climates with a theme that feels almost entirely lifted from his earlier work onFargo. Even in a later segment when the style veers into horror territory, the accompaniment feels safe – a real departure from the magic of some of Burwell’s recent work.
But disappointment isn’t limited to the score, it lurks around every corner in Buster Scruggs. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who worked with the Coen’s on the superior Inside Llewyn Davis, doesn’t appear to be trying to do anything other than cash a big cheque from Netflix. Daytime scenes are well lensed but never beautiful, and it is a marked step down from Roger Deakins work with the brothers on True Grit. And the range of locations and settings offered? Delbonnel makes little use of the variation other than a Sleepy Hollow-esque cartoon horror feel for the final segment.
Burwell and Delbonnel’s input on this picture is emblematic of a larger problem with the directorial work of the Coen’s, not just here but throughout their careers. Though there are many examples of emotional innovation, of excellence in filmmaking and cinematic brilliance across their films, there are definite cases where either self indulgence or laziness appears to take hold. Hail, Caesar! could have used at least one redraft, and the less said about Intolerable Cruelty, the better. In both films, the Coen’s pay respect to tropes and styles that have come before – from the camp setting of old Hollywood in the former to bland romantic conflict in the latter. Buster Scruggs utilises that same respect, but often forgets to plant a tongue in its cheek. Either the references are so overt that they feel tired, or they are so niche that it isn’t interesting. It is a genuine shame, because the first segment, after which the film is named, promises so much that the remainder of the picture does not deliver.
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