The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
How the West Was Won (more or less)
Originally conceived as a single season television series, Joel and Ethan Coen’s playful Western, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, has instead arrived on our screens courtesy of Netflix in the form of an anthology film: six different tales set in the American West, each different and distinct, but united by the stylistic quirks and mordant morality of the Brothers Coen.
This is, of course, not the first time the Coens have looked West for inspiration. Many of their films draw on elements of the genre for various narrative and thematic effects — from their 1984 debut, Blood Simple, to 1987’s madcap Raising Arizona, to 1998’s The Big Lebowski with its drawling Sam Elliott narration, to the acclaimed 2007 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. However, their 2010 redux of True Grit proved that their affection and respect for the Western runs deep — and Buster Scruggs underlines that statement emphatically. The filmmakers know the genre inside and out: its rules and structures, but also its incredible breadth of possibility — the Western is a broad church, after all, with many different modes and forms of story sheltered under the wide brim of its Stetson.
Thus, here we get a poker hand (plus one up the sleeve) populated with singing cowboys, hapless bank robbers, courageous wagon train pioneers, ruthless would-be showbusiness empresarios, and more.
Kicking things off is the eponymous tale, which sees Tim Blake Nelson, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), as the titular Buster Scruggs, amiable guitar-picker and lightning-fast killing machine, as he sings and shoots his way through a typical day. It’s gruesomely hilarious stuff, as Nelson keeps up a steady stream of to-camera patter while he dispatches any and all who challenge or inconvenience him.
Near Algodones has James Franco, The Disaster Artist (2017), as a nameless outlaw whose day starts off bad with a botched bank robbery and only gets worse from there. Tight and pithy, this stretch of the film is basically a long set up for a pretty good punchline, textured with Sergio Leone aesthetics.
Two-hander Meal Ticket puts the focus on a limbless orator (Harry Melling), a possible idiot savant who recites speeches, poetry, and plays for paying audiences, ferried from settlement to settlement by a ragged entrepreneur (Liam Neeson). However, crowds are growing thin and the money coming in is lessening, and so something has to change …
The meditative All Gold Canyon puts us in a pristine prairie location with the legendary Tom Waits, Down by Law (1986), here a lone grizzled prospector (of course!) who is methodically working his gold claim. Although capped with a few moments of drama, this is basically the cinematic equivalent of ASMR: hypnotic and eminently, ineffably satisfying. The film essentially stops in its tracks for 15 or so minutes to let us watch Tom Waits dig holes and pan for gold, and it is without a doubt an absolute highlight.
Zoe Kazan’s prim but courageous pioneer Alice Longabaugh is the focus of The Gal Who Got Rattled, and we follow her fortunes on a wagon train to Oregon after her brother, Gilbert (Jefferson Mays), succumbs to tuberculosis, and she must grapple with the sudden uncertainty of her future. However, an encounter with an Indian war party soon outs the scale of her predicament into sharp relief, and this section of the film quickly shows the debt it owes to ‘70s cavalry pictures such as Ulzana’s Raid and Soldier Blue.
Finally, The Mortal Remains puts a disparate group of strangers in a stagecoach, just like that classic John Ford western whose name eludes me at the moment, for a long, largely metaphorical discussion on death, life, morality, and morbidity. Jonjo O’Neill, Defiance (2008), and Brendan Gleeson, Calvary (2014), are two erudite and deadly bounty hunters whose latest prize is strapped to the roof of the coach, while Tyne Daly, Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), is their God-fearing fellow passenger who takes offense at their rather jaded take on mortality. A dialogue-driven parable, this final chapter showcases the Coens’ dexterous writing at its very best.
To draw once again from the Western metaphor well, there’s not a dud bullet in any of the film’s six chambers, with every segment working as a perfectly formed little vignette — most with a delicious little sting in the tail, too. The whole thing comes across as the work of artists deeply engaged with their subject material — not just the historical period (the casual but rich detail of the production design will knock your eye out if you let it) but also the cinematic traditions of the genre itself, with the Coens tipping their hats to John Ford, Sergio Leone, Howard Hawks, Gene Autry, Robert Aldrich, and many more.
At the end of the day, this is a rare treat: the Coen brothers have made a Western anthology, and you can watch it in your own home right now. What’s not to love?
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is currently streaming on Netflix