Certain segments are far more engaging than others, but overall The Ballad of Buster Scruggs makes for an intriguing piece of anthology storytelling.
Initially reported as being Ethan and Joel Coen's first venture into television, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is really a western anthology movie composed of six separate stories that the Coen Brothers have cooked up for Netflix and its library of original content. The filmmaking siblings have worked in the western genre before (namely, on 2010's True Grit), but Buster Scruggs marks the first time they've spun yarns about the Old American West of their own creation. On the whole, the project is as fascinatingly peculiar and untraditional as one would expect a Coen Brothers anthology to be, if also somewhat uneven and clunky in design. Certain segments are far more engaging than others, but overall The Ballad of Buster Scruggs makes for an intriguing piece of anthology storytelling.
The Ballad of Buster Buggs takes place entirely on the old American frontier and kicks off with the eponymous segment, which tells the tale of Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), a sharp-shooting outlaw with a cheerful disposition and a fondness for passing the time by singing. The second section ("Near Algodones") then shifts the focus to a would-be robber (James Franco), who gets more than he bargained for when he tries to burglarize a remote bank. This is followed by the third chapter ("Meal Ticket"), which follows a grizzled impresario (Liam Neeson) and his star-act (Harry Melling)... an actor/orator with no arms or legs.
The film's fourth portion ("All Gold Canyon") then shifts the action to an isolated canyon, where a gruff prospector (Tom Waits) mines for what he believes is a giant patch of gold. Story #5 ("The Gal Who Got Rattled") changes things up again as it follows Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan), a young woman who forms a relationship with one of the overseers (Bill Heck) on a wagon train expedition. And finally, the movie concludes with "The Mortal Remains", a tale in which a group of strangers discusses their lives, loves, and beliefs on an (increasingly eery) carriage ride set against a fading sun.
All six segments in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs were written and helmed by the Coen Brothers, which explains their tonal and thematic similarities. While certain chapters are naturally more darkly humorous than others, all six stories generally manage to straddle the line between bleak comedy and sincere drama the same way the filmmakers' previous offerings typically have. That's not to say each one has the exact same tone, either; "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs", for instance, is like a Looney Tunes western musical skit with R-rated comical violence, whereas "Meal Ticket" is a distinctly gothic narrative and "The Gal Who Got Rattled" strikes a tragicomical vibe that brings True Grit to mind. For the most part, however, the individual sections play out in the same fashion, e.g. with the protagonist getting themselves in and out of conflicts before, in a moment of dramatic irony, their world is forever changed (or ended), for the better or the worse. As a result, the stories become increasingly predictable (and, in turn, less memorable) the further along the film goes.
The Coen Brothers have more success in differentiating The Ballad of Buster Scruggs' segments stylistically from one another than they necessarily do in terms of plot. Working alongside cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (their Inside Llewyn Davis DP) and shooting in digital for the first time, the filmmakers create a distinct color palette and visual template to go with each of the movie's individual stories; ranging from the bright scenery and often playfully twisted imagery of "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" to the murky and claustrophobic "The Mortal Remains", which is lit like a German Expressionist drama and shot like a western from the early 20th century. Costume designer Mary Zophres and composer Carter Burwell (both of whom are longtime Coen collaborators) similarly make the changes necessary to the film's outfits and score, in order to better reflect the shifting temperament and ever changing moods of the various narratives.
Most of the film's cast do an equally good job of adjusting their acting styles to match the tone of any particular segment here - though, naturally, some are more successful than others. Nelson, unsurprisingly, succeeds in playing the inherently larger than life Buster Scruggs without going over the top (much like he did as escaped convict Delmar O'Donnell in the Coens' O Brother, Where Art Thou?), as do newcomers to the Coen universe like Melling - whom you may know as Dudley Dursley from the Harry Potter films - and Jonjo O'Neill and Brendan Gleeson as a pair of "reapers" in "The Mortal Remains" (the latter of whom even gets to do some singing himself). Kazan and Heck prove to be similarly capable of adapting to the comparatively serious approach of "The Gal Who Got Rattled", as does Waits in his role as an extra-growly grumbling gold hunter. At the same time, Franco feels oddly misplaced in the world of the Coen Brothers and Neeson simply doesn't have a lot to do in "Meal Ticket" beyond looking stone-faced.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is that it serves as something of a reflection on the Coen Brothers' legacy as storytellers and the ways the western genre has evolved over the decades. Indeed, there's a clear throughline - i.e. death (both literal and figurative) is unavoidable and stories are what we ultimately leave behind when we're gone - that unites the film's six segments, in turning making them feel better connected. Problem is, that message comes through so loud and clear in "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" that it starts to become tedious when every subsequent section repeats it, without really having anything new to add. In fairness, the movie is also striving to drive home the idea that the same stories are always being retold in different forms (something that's mentioned explicitly at one point), but a two-hour plus anthology feature might've not been the ideal format to explore that concept in.
As seems to be the case with a growing number of Netflix Original movies, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an intriguing and unique project, but also one that falls short of realizing the potential promised by its creatives and ensemble. Of course, an "average" Coen Brothers film is still something worth checking out - and since a trip to the theater might've felt unnecessary in this case, that makes streaming the movie at home on Netflix the perfect option for those who are interested in this one. And on that note: here's looking forward to many more stories from the Coens to come in the future.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is now available for streaming through Netflix. It is 133 minutes long and is rated R for some strong violence.
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- The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) release date: Nov 16, 2018