Starting from John Ford’s The Searchers which subverted John Wayne’s usual patriarchal image by adding a soupcon of racism and blood thirst to his usually static presence, the ‘revisionist western’ has gradually expanded to encompass the entire genre. Revisionist westerns make the radical argument that perhaps the Wild West was a deeply violent and unpleasant time to be alive and was notably light on the classic Western standby of clean-cut cowboys who spent most of their time singing and keeping their sparkly white clothes spotless. It is therefore something of a surprise for when The Ballad of Buster Scruggs opens with a clean-cut cowboy in sparkly white clothes comes trotting out strumming a guitar and blithely singing away.
In any other filmmaker’s oeuvre, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs would be a quixotic outlier. However the Coen brothers have ploughed their own idiosyncratic furlough for long enough that, whilst Scruggs bears no resemblance to anything else in their back catalogue [give or take their masterful remake of True Grit], it’s very much composed in the same key as the rest of their works. Taking the form of a series of vignettes strung together like rough diamonds on a rawhide thong, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs feels like less of a movie and more of travelling medicine show. The six stories that make it up are connected by only most cursory of linking devices, a hand turning the pages on an old cloth bound book of Western themed tall tales.
The titular Buster Scruggs is the singing cowboy of the first tale, played with goofy aw-shucks aplomb by Tim Blake Nelson [who was apparently given the script by the Coens back in 2002, which gives some idea of how long this film has been percolating] feels like he could have strolled out of a Technicolor cowboy musical. Harmonising with his own echoes whilst riding through canyons and occasionally talking directly to the camera, the only thing that breaks the illusion is Scruggs’ regrettable habit of killing almost everyone he comes across with sociopathic brio. The madcap borderline Looney Toons-energy of the short would have been exhausting to maintain over feature length and it ends at just the right time. The remaining shorts are nowhere near as broad, with nary a weak link to be found, though the elegiac nastiness of Liam Neeson’s turn as a brutal impresario shepherding a limbless artist through frontier towns might run a bit long for some. The whole film simultaneously celebrates various facets of classic westerns in each of its tales, whilst meshing these well-used tropes with death and brutality. In the hands of lesser directors this conceit would crash and burn, but thankfully this spiky gonzo end product stands proudly on its be-spurred feet possessed of an actual message, particularly brought into focus by the last and best segment: The Mortal Remains about which the less said the better. The Coens’ understand that our stories of the Wild West will live forever, people: not so much.