Film Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a Coen Brothers Western Through and Through

The Pitch: Originally borne as a Netflix series, Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has instead found life as a straightforward anthology film, a melange of grimly comic vignettes set in the Old West. Each of the six segments follows a different story of doomed adventurers out on the frontier – the titular Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), a cheery singing cowboy with the deadly bloodlust of Anton Chigurh; a bank robber (James Franco) who keeps escaping certain hanging by increasingly karmic threads; a limbless traveling orator (Henry Melling) silently suffering the bitterness of his impresario (Liam Neeson); a prospector (Tom Waits) probing an Edenic valley for a pocket of gold; a young bride-to-be (Zoe Kazan) enduring a dangerous wagon train ride to a new life; and a group of coach passengers (Saul Rubinek, Tyne Daly, Chelcie Ross) discovering the Gothic fate that awaits them at their destination.

No Country for Old Cowboys: The Old West is always a fascinating milieu for the Coens’ particular brand of idiosyncracies. After all, many of their other works have the feel of a Western – the outlaw sensibilities of Llewyn Davis and Raising Arizona’s Hi, the tumbling tumbleweed of the Dude – which makes their explicit Westerns (True Grit, No Country for Old Men) feel especially Coenesque. Their darkly comic explorations of ordinary and extraordinary undone by fate has a perfect backdrop amidst the tall, flat mountains of Arizona and the plains of Nevada, the lawlessness of the Old West filled in by the caprices of Mother Nature and man’s inhumanity of man.

In this respect, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs feels like the Coens dabbling in this winking moral nihilism in a more scattershot fashion. None of the vignettes are diegetically connected, but all are collected in a hard-bound book an unidentified hand (the hand of fate, perhaps?) flips through between each segment, like the framing device of an old Disney movie. As is prototypical of the Coens, each hero struggles against the unfeeling, uncaring world of the frontier – circumstances toss them from one predicament to another, characters moving (or being transported) inexorably toward their fates in myriad ways. Virtue matters little: Kazan’s kind, innocent Alice Longbaugh is just as doomed as Franco’s hapless outlaw.

Strikes and Gutters: While the Coens are some of mainstream cinema’s most acclaimed filmmakers, they’re not immune to the occasional misstep, and Buster Scruggs’ nature as an anthology is a perfect microcosm of their career’s quality. Some of the segments number among the best stuff the Coens have done; Buster Scruggs, for instance, is an uproariously goofy sendup of the Singing Cowboy genre they already lampooned in Hail, Caesar!, Nelson’s gormless gunslinger a deliciously watchable protagonist as he sings and shoots his way through a cartoonish version of the Old West. Waits’ segment is also a particular highlight, practically a one-man show as he digs around an Edenic valley panning for gold and grumbling to his quarry. “I’m gonna find ya, Mister Pocket,” he grumbles to himself in his charmingly gravelly register, the flora and fauna of the valley stepping out of his way until he finds what he wants.

Franco and Neeson’s segments also have their fair amount of poetry to them: Franco’s run-in with an overeager bank teller (Stephen Root) who defends his bank by strapping on cast iron pans to deflect bullets (“Pan-shot!” he squeals as each round pings against him) is a lovely bit of comedy, and Neeson’s shifting rapport with the pitiable actor he carries around in his segment is told entirely without dialogue.

However, the last two segments feel like a case of diminishing returns, padding that don’t quite match the otherwise superb quality of the previous vignettes. Kazan’s wagon-train adventure is an overlong slog centered largely around a milquetoast romance between her and the rugged cowboy Mr. Knapp (Bill Heck), saved somewhat by an exciting and tragic final few minutes. The final segment, the Poe-like “The Mortal Remains”, is an outright bore, though, a waste of several great actors spouting portentous dialogue as they wheel toward their inevitable fate. It’s a decent enough ghost story in and of itself, but it suffers compared to the novelty of the other segments.

The Verdict: The uneven quality of the vignettes aside, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is still a suitably Coenesque jaunt through the merciless trails of the American West. Between its impeccable cast, Bruno Delbonnel’s jaw-dropping Western photography, and Carter Burwell’s always-radiant scoring, Buster Scruggs is at least worth the price of admission for its first hour and a half. Come for Tim Blake Nelson slaughtering people with a goofy grin on his face, stay for Tom Waits conquering Mother Nature with nothing but a trowel, a mule, and a big bushy beard. It’ll at least whet your appetite until the next full-length Coen joint comes a-callin’.

Where’s It Playing?: Netflix will release The Ballad of Buster Scruggs in select theaters on November 8th before releasing it wide via streaming on November 16th.

Trailer:

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