The Ballad of Buster Scruggs Review

Ballad of Buster Scruggs Review
(3.5 STARS)

The latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen was originally meant to be an anthology series for Netflix, but somewhere between its conception and the Venice Film Festival this year, it became a two-hour, six-part anthology film.

On the surface, this treatment will turn some viewers off, and “disjointed” and “uneven” will be words used across reviews, and I’d by lying if I said they weren’t on my mind from time to time while I watched the film. That said, there’s a point to these stories being told in this way. And they’re all pure Coen—sometimes silly, sometimes touching, always darkly, strangely, almost inexplicably powerful.

As mentioned, there are six small stories of varying lengths set in the Old West. In order, they are:

  • “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” in which the titular character (Tim Blake Nelson) masks his killing prowess (and enjoyment) with a sunny disposition and a dulcet baritone singing voice.
  • “Near Aldogones,” in which a would-be bank robber (James Franco) struggles to escape the hangman’s noose.
  • “Meal Ticket,” in which an armless, legless monologist (Harry Melling) and his caretaker (Liam Neeson) see their audiences shrink over time.
  • “All Golds Canyon,” in which a lone gold prospector (Tom Waits) digs tirelessly for a fortune he knows is underfoot.
  • “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” in which a woman (Zoe Kazan) on her way to Oregon garners the affection of a rider after her brother dies.
  • “The Mortal Remains,” in which a stagecoach full of rotten souls is on the road to … somewhere.

Because the stories are shorter (some just 10 minutes or so), the film is kind of hard-capped at mid-tier Coens. Not that that’s a bad thing—a middle of road film for these filmmakers is capable of being the best of any given year—but it is a little hard to get truly roped into this world. The film’s only connective tissue is an unseen person turning the pages of a book.

What we get instead, however, are six distinct Coen endings, and this is a treat. More than perhaps anything else, these filmmakers know how to wrap up a story or storyline with a punch to the gut, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has a couple of these. The Franco chapter ends with a perverse twist of the knife. The Tom Waits chapter sort of lulls you into a rhythm that gets disrupted (and disrupted again). In “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” you’ll be left shaken a la No Country for Old Men or True Grit.

The film’s cast is remarkably deep, but no individual garners enough screen time to enter the pantheon of Coen performances. Tim Blake Nelson plays the most memorable character in the film (helped by the fact that the film is named after him). But I was most taken by Waits, Kazan, and Bill Heck, playing against Kazan as her protector and a potential match. He’s very restrained and good-natured, and you’re sort of waiting (a while, as this is the film’s longest segment) for something to shake up this personally idyllic if naturally dangerous world they’re co-existing in. Where it goes, as I’ve alluded to, is shocking.

You’ve also got all the extraordinary craft achievements that mark Coen films, from Carter Burwell’s tinkling score to Bruno Delbonnel’s breathtaking cinematography. Coupled with the brothers’ trademark wit and strong interest in death’s playfulness, it adds up to something beautiful and haunting. The Coens’ West is an unforgiving place—maybe less forgiving than any other depiction of this place on film—but it’s somewhere you’re happy to visit for the scenery, the uncomfortable laughs, and the dramatic shocks.

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