The Coen brothers’s anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a portrait of the many sides of the west, but like any other anthology film there’s always that challenge coming by as to how can all stories ever remain so compelling. You can only get so much charm out of the sort of wit that’s typical of the Coen brothers, but where the film already finds some of its very best footing it also comes right in between some of the weaker portions of the film. That’s not to say I was never entertained by The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, but I had only ever found myself susceptible to dozing off because certain stories didn’t capture my interest as much as another one did. But knowing that the Coen brothers had initially intended this as a miniseries, with every segment representing another facet of the American west, maybe it’s also reflective of what one could also expect from how each story mixes together here. You’ll already know which stories you would want to stick with, just as you would which ones you’ll also find yourself caring less about – but there’s always something entertaining to come out from each story.
Starting off the film is a story about the titular Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), a misanthropic country musician and outlaw who sings all about what life is like in the west – before we are told more stories that happen within the same setting. The first of such vignettes is one about a cowboy played by James Franco as he attempts to rob a bank, another is about an impresario played by Liam Neeson and an artist without arms and legs played by Harry Melling. Soon we move further and further away as we are also told stories of a gold-digging prospector played by Tom Waits, a young woman played by Zoe Kazan, all to a destiny into the unknown within a stagecoach. Like every anthology film, it’s easy to get so lost within one chapter being told on the screen only to have that followed up with another one that feels underwhelming – yet the common thread that all of them share is a reflection of life in the west not being much different from modern life, and how America’s lifestyle almost seems defined by such.
It’s already fitting enough that the film is titled after its first vignette, which shows the goofy outlaw Buster Scruggs as he sings so cheerfully. But the way in which the Coen brothers mix together this cheerful nature together with often disturbing images of violence is yet another aspect of the film that only sets the tone of the film so perfectly into place. American audiences seem so accepting of the sight of violence on the screen, because of how familiar it was in the setting – and it’s also what gives the film an impending sense of doom through one short after the other. There’s a moment in which you find yourself laughing along with what happens, but of course it never always lands – the second segment with James Franco only ever feels like a single joke being repeated all over again – yet when it strikes gold (pun intended), these moments stand out perfectly. It’s already a difficult enough job to have every one of these vignettes coming together to flow so perfectly, because the highs and lows are all too clear, yet that consistent theme to which the Coen brothers work with only ever keeps the work so engaging.
Two stories that stood out in particular to me apart from everyone else were “All Gold Canyon” and “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” Considering the dour nature of the previous segments, Tom Waits’s bit also felt like a nice break from what came beforehand because there’s a sense of optimism that it evoked which never felt present after the first segment. Yet of course it was always going to have its own consequences, so building up to “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” which was my favourite segment in the film, there was a more rewarding effect that came afterward. It was rewarding in the sense that the segment earned its own length, because it felt like the most emotionally investing storyline, because it was where it seemed like the film’s themes seemed to be able to find its footing most comfortably. So as it led into the final segment, just not knowing what was to come forward about its setting, it only felt like the perfect note to conclude.
If I were to be asked about how I would rank each segment, it’s as easy as this: 5 > 4 > 1 > 6 > 3 > 2. But the way in which the Coen brothers allow every one of these stories to flow and lead into one another is something that I think is worth commending. Representation of Native Americans aside (none of them are ever really characters but portrayed purely as savages), this is also in part what I feel like I’d come to expect from the Coen brothers trying to create a common thread for these stories that all took place in the west. But I hope that a film like this can come and revitalize interest in the western genre nowadays, because there are numerous possibilities that can come fully realized within such a setting. An experiment like this should already be proof enough of all of that, even with the visible cracks present then and there.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Netflix.
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen
Produced by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Megan Ellison, Sue Naegle, Robert Graf
Starring Tyne Daly, James Franco, Brendan Gleeson, Zoe Kazan, Liam Neeson, Harry Melling, Tim Blake Nelson, Tom Waits
Release Date: November 9, 2018
Running Time: 133 minutes