The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is simultaneously an odd addition to their oeuvre and yet perfectly in keeping with their wild, acerbic tone. The film was birthed as a television anthology of Western tales, a pulpy collection of short stories tied together by little more than the dusty setting. From there, it was picked up by Netflix and revised into one united movie that’s getting a limited theatrical run as well as launching on the streaming service.
It goes without saying that anything by the Coens will be visually sumptuous enough to warrant the biggest screen possible. Their latest collaboration with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis) makes this a truly cinematic experience.
A hardbound tomeis used as a framing device, with a hand flipping through pages past a series of bold oil painting inserts teasing the tales to come. Each provides much in the way of trademark Coenisms, from surreal and sadistic moments intertwined with flights of absolute whimsy.
The first story, involving the titular Mr. Scruggs, sees Tim Blake Nelson smashing Gene Autry-style singing coyboy shtick with Peckinpah-ian brutality. The second, Near Algodones, has James Franco and Stephen Root outwit one another, with the former engaged in one of the anthology’s many existential shifts in perspective.
The third, Meal Ticket, is both exploitational and profound, a commentary with Liam Neeson and Harry Melling that focuses on freak culture and the fickle audiences that often eschew prowess for spectacle, no matter the cost. All Gold Canyon is a musically rich journey of a prospector (Tom Waits) who diligently digs for his treasure.
The Gal Who Got Rattled is the longest and most fully drawn of the bunch. Bill Heck, Grainger Hines and Zoe Kazan take part in a wagon train heading west. Finally, the most allegorical of all, The Mortal Remains, finds Brendan Gleeson, Jonjo O’Neill (both providing more singing!), Tyne Daly, Saul Rubinek and Chelcie Ross in a Dead Man-like voyage that would make Dante proud.
Combined, the stories serve to echo everything from The Big Lebowski to A Serious Man, with more overt connections to the likes of True Grit, No Country for Old Men, and even a modicum of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Raising Arizona. Each piece feels just substantial enough without overstaying its welcome. Freed from needing to hit specific lengths, the segments ebb and flow with their own running times, which feels far more novelistic than episodic in a television sense. There’s little in the way of fat here.
A symphony of cruelty underscores The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Each tale is told with a refusal to sugarcoat the doom that lays for most involved. However, this is hardly a dour piece. It’s a reflection on the absurdity of both life and death, which finds gallows humor even when the rope isn’t explicitly around a protagonist’s neck (and even when it is). This may not be top-tier Coens, but it’s still some of the most charming, effective, intelligent cinema you’re going to see this year.