THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS

The Coen Brothers are some of my favorite filmmakers ever, but that’s certainly not an unpopular opinion amongst film aficionados. The funny thing is, as much as I love them, they’re pretty hit and miss for me. Their misses aren’t big ones, though. I’m usually lukewarm on those, but for every Hail, Caesar!, we get six excellent films, including masterpieces like The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men. Even if you aren’t big fans of them, there’s absolutely one thing that I don’t think can be objectively denied: as filmmakers, they have two of the most unique voices and visions on the planet. 

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an anthology film of six stories presented from the first-person perspective of a person reading from a book. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs follows singing cowboy Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) as he traverses the Old West. Near Algodones is about a hapless bank robber (James Franco) whose luck gets worse and worse. Meal Ticket follows an impresario (Liam Neeson) and his limbless performer (Harry Melling). In All Gold Canyon, a prospector (Tom Waits) hunts for gold along the mountainside. The Girl Who Got Rattled follows prairie girl Alice (Zoe Kazan) as she travels to Oregon with her brother Gilbert (Jefferson Mays). The Mortal Remains, the final story, tells the story about a group of mysterious strangers on a seemingly endless stagecoach trip.

Most anthology films contain short films made by different filmmakers, but the The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has the Coen Brothers writing and directing all six shorts. This adds a nice consistency to the tone and atmosphere, but this is also a perfect vehicle for the Coen’s to show just how versatile of filmmakers they really are. Over their 30+ year career, they’ve made everything from gritty crime dramas to kooky comedies, and everything else in between, perfectly mixing the elements together. Quentin Tarantino is another one of those filmmakers, but with him, you always know what you’re going to get. With the Coen’s, you never know. I got the same feeling with these stories, all so vastly different in tone and intent, that even if I wanted more of one story, I was excited to see what else they had to offer. Even then, you still get that distinct Coen brand all the way through.

The Coen’s brand of absurd, dark comedy has always tickled my funny bone, and there’s plenty of that to be found here. The funniest story was Near Algodones, which really seemed like it was all just setup for a joke at the very end, but it’s perfectly fine. It’s the type of ironic, tragic, and dark comedy that they’re known for. You feel bad for the bank robber, but the circumstances are just too silly to not laugh at his misfortune. Also, when you get something as nuts as Stephen Root wearing pots and pans for armor, charging at the guy while yelling, “Pan shot!”, how can you not love it just from the sheer absurdity? The opening story, the titular Ballad of Buster Scruggs, has them embracing the cartoonish silliness they love so much, with hilariously graphic violence and Tim Blake Nelson as stereotypical classic cowboy singing songs about said graphic violence. Imagine if Looney Tunes received the classic Old West treatment.

The unfortunate nature of an anthology is that some stories are just going to be stronger than the others. When you have different filmmakers, the quality usually coincides with their talent, which can make some stories feel not up to snuff. While I love the Coen’s, not everything they’ve made has connected with me, and I’ll say that the last two shorts weren’t as gripping or entertaining as the first four. While the performances were stellar, I found The Girl Who Got Rattled to be a bit too long, with an unsatisfying conclusion that didn’t justify the slow pace. It’s still genuinely hard hitting and drives home just how brutal living in the Old West was. The final story, The Mortal Remains, was interesting, but a lot less clear in its intent. The performances were fine, especially from Chelcie Ross as the Trapper, but for the final story, it didn’t feel that hard hitting. The whole film unfortunately looked cheap too, possibly because it was the Coen’s first film shot on digital. It didn’t bother me too much, but it was especially evident here with a more surreal type story. Although the glorious thing about this being an anthology film on Netflix is that it begs for rewatches, which I’m definitely going to do, especially for the last two.

The standout of the bunch, and what really deserves a paragraph all its own, is the fourth story, All Gold Canyon. It stars a perfectly cast (like really, just perfect) Tom Waits as a prospector panning for gold on the mountainside. He’s able to find specks of gold, proving that there’s a large deposit nearby, which he affectionately refers to as “Mr. Pocket”. He makes it a goal to find Mr. Pocket and steal all his gold, and it’s a simple story like this that shows how important having the right actor is. It’s really just a guy digging a bunch of holes and talking to himself, but Waits plays the prospector with such a sweet and earnest attitude. It doesn’t mean he’s a pushover, though. He still knows the world he lives in and that he always has to keep looking over his shoulder. It’s just him, his mule, and nature. Nothing else. It felt like the most realized story of the bunch, with a real beginning, middle, and end for our character. This is also the only story here not written directly by the Coen’s, being an adaptation of a Jack London story, so that could explain why it’ s not as open ended or up to interpretation like their other works.

While watching the films, I kept trying to come up with a theme that somewhat tied them altogether, aside from them just being tales of the American frontier. As it was going on, I was feeling like it was telling stories about people doing whatever it takes to survive in the West, whether it means cheating, murdering, or stealing. The last two stories kind of threw a wrench in my theory, but maybe there doesn’t have to be anything connecting them beyond the genre. After watching it, my friend said that it felt like the Coen’s had the Buster Scruggs idea, planned it out, but realized it was a concept that couldn’t sustain a feature. So they tried again with another, and another, until they just said screw it and decided to an anthology. Either way works, but doing different stories allowed them to play around with a whole lot of different characters and ideas, all while still retaining their signature style. It also allowed for them to fit in every single Old West trope they could think of, featuring hangings, prospectors panning for gold, eerie stagecoach rides, and every other classic cliché under the sun. That’s part of what adds to the fun and excitement to see what story they tell next.

There’s something to love in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs for anybody who calls themselves a fan of the Coen brothers. If you enjoy their dark and ironic comedy, there’s plenty of that. If you love their over the top sensibilities, you’ll get that in spades. If you’re a fan of their well defined characters, you’ll all of those played by some of the finest character actors. The Coen Brothers have shown themselves to be obvious fans of the Western genre with some of their other works, but with this being their first original fare that tells multiple stories, they’re able to fully embrace every little thing they love. If there’s ever a demonstration of the huge range of talent they have, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is certainly it.

9/10

 

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