REVIEW: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

Release Poster – Netflix

The following is a review of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs — Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.

Netflix has come a long way since its first original film in the western genre, 2015’s The Ridiculous Six, which was so poorly received that it still now, at the time of writing, has a 0% score on Rotten Tomatoes‘ Tomatometer. Not a single Rotten Tomatoes approved critic liked the film that I called “possibly the worst film of 2015.”

Now here we are in November of 2018, and now Netflix has a new western original film to champion. Netflix has teamed up with the widely celebrated Coen Brothers to release a collection of American western stories presented as an anthology film and not as a series, as it was previously reported as. The Coens’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is hysterical, sad, and morbid, and it is one of my favorite films of the year thus far. 

The Coens’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs begins by presenting us with a picture of a novel about various folk tales from the Old West. As we go from each short story in the novel to the next, pages are turned and color plates are shown before we get to immerse ourselves in each story of varying length and various genres. The first of these short stories lends its name to the film.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the first short story segment, is about a wanted outlaw who looks nothing like it. Buster Scruggs is a singing cowboy dressed all in white who breaks the fourth wall, sings in large musical numbers, and who participates in ludicrous duels. Buster Scruggs is played by Tim Blake Nelson, who is absolutely hysterical in a memorable performance as a character that does not at all fit into the rough, tough, and merciless Old West. The musical numbers that he participates in are extremely amusing and the end to his chapter feels like an appropriate reminder of the unforeseen and sudden change of events that we can expect to see in the world these stories are set.

“There’s just gotta be a place up ahead where men ain’t low down, and poker’s played fair. If there weren’t, what are all the songs about?”

The second segment, Near Algodones, is about a lone cowboy (played by James Franco) who tries to rob a small bank in the middle of nowhere. The failed robbery is a lot of fun to watch thanks to a lively and inventive bank teller played by a playful Stephen Root, and watching Franco try to avoid the noose as the segment goes on is entertaining as well. These two segments are the most comedic of them all, and when they are done there is a clear shift in tone.

“Pan-shot!”

Unfortunately, after these two memorable segments, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs runs into some trouble as the one and only tedious and repetitive segment is the next one up. If this had been an anthology series and not a film, then this would’ve been the ‘episode’ I might advise you to skip. This third segment, Meal Ticket, follows a young orator (played by Harry Melling) with no arms or legs as well as his impresario (played by Liam Neeson).

We get to hear Melling do his best reading of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’ poem a couple of times, and we see how their act becomes less and less popular. This segment might be the most disturbing of them all, but it takes its time to make its point about the entertainment industry’s interest in money and popularity over individuals, artists, and art. I grew tired of the segment, which is really my only major issue with the anthology film — the midway point of the film will test the patience of some viewers. Thankfully, the rest of the segments return to the impressive level of entertainment that the first two segments offered, only with a markedly different tone.

“The Pecking Pythagorean!”

The fourth segment, All Gold Canyon, is perhaps the most beautiful of them all. In the segment, which is an adaptation of the Jack London short story of the same name, we follow a disheveled prospector (played by Tom Waits) as he digs for gold near a small, narrow river in a picturesque valley. It should be noted that Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography in the anthology film is gorgeous. He presents us with some truly awesome shots of the nature of the American Old West, and this segment could easily be submitted as his own highlight reel because even though there are other rich shots in the other segments, the vibrant shots of the green mountain valley are sights to behold.

“How high can a bird count anyway?”

Though I do think both the third and fourth segments seem longer than they are, the longest segment of them all is the fifth segment, of which, I will say, I would love to watch a feature-length version. The fifth segment, The Gal Who Got Rattled, is also an adaptation of a previous story — this is a reworking of a short story from Stewart Edward White. The segment follows Alice Longabaugh (played by Zoe Kazan), a young woman who is traveling on a wagon train to Oregon with her brother.

Her hand in marriage has been promised to one of her brother’s business partners, but the wagon train is far more eventful than any of them bargained for. Plans change, a suitor appears, and Native Americans stop by in a segment that features both a remarkably sweet Coen Brothers romance story and a thrilling turn of events when Alice finds herself alone. Here the most interesting performance is the one given by Bill Heck. His is a name that I have not encountered often, and I was impressed by his work with Kazan in this very memorable segment where he plays a kind and soft-spoken cowboy.

“Uncertainty… That is appropriate for matters of this world. Only regarding the next are we vouchsafed certainty.”

The sixth and final segment, The Mortal Remains, is very different than the other segments, but, even though it doesn’t have the same humor as the opening segment, like the Buster Scruggs-segment it touches upon what might happen at the end of the road, so to speak. At face value, The Mortal Remains is a story about a stagecoach and those upon it. Three passengers and a corpse are being taken somewhere by two men that claim to be ‘bounty hunters.’

It must be said that one of the disappointments about this segments is that Brendan Gleeson is underserved. He gets a memorable moment as he gets to sing a little song, but that is pretty much it for him. Also, while it may not be the darkest or bleakest segment tonally, it is eventually presented with deep shades of black and blue when they travel at nighttime. While the conclusion is ultimately ambiguous, I think it includes a satisfying ending shot to a film about tall tales, the potential pointlessness of death, and certainties and uncertainties.

“We help people who have been adjudged to be ripe.”

As it is a Netflix film, I had the chance to rewatch the film on the same day that I first saw it. Watching it again made some of my initial issues with the film disappear, and while I still do not really like Meal Ticket, I had a greater appreciation for it on my second viewing. What is true for all of the segments is that the Coens have created another supremely well-written film. The dialogue is witty and period-appropriate (but admittedly sometimes over-the-top), and it feels appropriate both in the bleak and sweet moments of the film.

Furthermore, although I think the look of The Mortal Remains could be an exception for some people, I would say that all of the segments are visually attractive — the open fields, the green canyon, and so on and so forth. Delbonnel’s shots are beautiful, and this might be the most visually stunning Netflix film thus far. There are also a lot of very good and memorable performances in most, if not all, of the segments, with Tim Blake Nelson’s extremely charismatic performance being the obvious highlight.

Although the format of the anthology film with no reappearing characters in any of the segments does not allow for the depth of character that you may want from a Coen film, the short segments allow for grim themes to reappear and hold the anthology film together. Satisfyingly, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is much more than just one thing. There are The Twilight Zone-esque stories with morals about the greedy human nature, engaging and devastating stories about the unpredictability of the Old West, commentary on the entertainment industry, but also perhaps the funniest musical sequence that I’ve seen all year. The Coens’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a well-designed period-specific anthology film that manages to be both morbid and hysterically funny. I am excited to watch it over and over again.

9 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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