Marking their 18th feature, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs feels like the epitome of the Coen Brothers. It’s as if someone might want to introduce the Coens’ work to someone who’d never seen a single one of their films before – Hail, Caesar!, Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy – but couldn’t decide which one to go with, so they packed everything into one film. That’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. It’s whimsical, fantastical, hilarious, melancholic, and often brutally violent as it presents six stories connected only through their themes which explore humanity amid the backdrop of the frontier American West. Released in partnership between Netflix and Annapurna Pictures, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an unlikely cinematic event which works both on the big screen and small, which is a great thing since audiences will have their pick of which they prefer for a brief time in November.
It’s difficult to adequately describe Buster Scruggs without digging too deeply into spoiler territory, so let’s keep it simple: designed as the cinematic adaptation of a book containing six unique stories, Buster Scruggs presents the fourth-wall-breaking Buster Scruggs in a musical-leaning narrative, a short film following a bank robber, a struggling traveling entertainment duo, a persistent prospector, a woman making her way across the Oregon trail, and carriage riders killing time until they reach their final destination. Each story is individual in form, execution, and character, yet is clearly part of a larger whole. As each story closes, a challenge is subconsciously laid bare for the viewer that must be processed quickly before the next adventure begins.
Despite the individualistic nature of each short film, there still remains a cohesiveness to the entire anthology. Initially, it appears because the stories all take place during the Westward expansion, which saw cowboys, lawmen, prospectors, colonists, and members of the various Native American nations in assorted forms of conflict. The Coens lean into the tropes and expectations of American audiences raised on TV shows like Gunsmoke, The Riflemen, and The Virginian in creating characters like the sweet yet vicious Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), the afflicted Cowboy (James Franco), or the virtuous Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan). These three stories offer plenty of chuckles, but also enable the Coens to investigate an aspect of the human condition rarely explored. Thereby revealing the Coens’s real intent of Buster Scruggs, which is an examination of the stories we tell ourselves in order to make it through the day and the truths we tell ourselves in order to sleep soundly at night. The chapter that nails this particular aspect is the sublime “Meal Ticket” featuring Liam Neeson as Impresario and Harry Melling (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone) as Artist, two traveling performers seeking wealth via audience. This sequence is largely silent, save for the Artist’s various monologues, requiring Neeson and Melling to emote their meaning and intent through physicality. This particular chapter is powerful for its examination of the human capacity for empathy, partnership, and the self-creation of family, while also offering a take on lengths we go to survive. While each of the six stories offer aspects that resonate, “Meal Ticket” is the one that lingers and does so the longest.
Though mileage may vary from audience member to audience member as each chapter plays, there’s no question as to the level of detail present in every aspect of Buster Scruggs. From the incredible set design and the costuming to the beautiful score from Carter Burwell (Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri), everything within Buster Scruggs conveys the precise tone of each world the chapters inhabit. For the titular chapter, the world is playful, like Scruggs himself. As he sings, his echo seems to sing along with him; the rules of law and logic step aside as if bent to his will. His suit is a clean cotton white, the dust he shakes off forming a non-corporeal duplicate before drifting off in the wind. These details make everything about Scruggs, even his penchant for violence, seem cartoonish or silly. In direct tonal opposition is the final story, “The Mortal Remains” which finds five individuals riding in a carriage as it barrels toward their destination, Fort Morgan. While it maintains the same clarity of frame, the colors are dark – clothes black, browns, greys, are deep emerald greens. Where “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is light and airy, there’s a malevolence that lingers in every frame of “The Mortal Remains” as the Englishman (Jonjo O’Neill) prods the passengers in a discussion of morality, ethics, and decency. Dressed in finery, save for the Trapper (Chelcie Ross) who wears his furs, the riders are presented as members of high society, yet their conversation reveals themselves for who they really are.
Fans of the Coen Brothers work will notice familiar faces from films of old, while others are making their debut. Nonetheless, each were clearly selected for their talent and, in many cases, gravitas. Nelson is having a grand time in the opening chapter, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” as he charms himself in and out of trouble. Stephen Root (Get Out) in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it performance chews on the scenery so hard, you’ll wonder how often they rebuilt the set. Tom Waits in “All Gold Canyon” is absolutely endearing as Prospector, a man who arrives in a beautiful valley only to tear it up in search of an elusive vein of gold. Of the stories, “The Girl Who Got Rattled” is the longest and most grueling, but Kazan’s performance, along with those of co-stars Bill Heck and Grainger Hines, make the extended chapter bearable. Kazan portrays a woman traveling to Oregon in a caravan under less than auspicious conditions, while Heck and Hines are the men responsible for getting the caravan of wagons filled with families to their destination. If not for Kazan instilling an appealing quality to the frequently morose Alice, Heck imbuing Billy Knepp with a charming, sweet side, and Hines revealing a surprising side of the reserved Mr. Arthur, the whole of the chapter would make dysentery seem just slightly preferable. Proving that sometimes less is more, the final chapter – “The Mortal Remains” – feels like a Gothic tale as O’Neil and Brendan Gleeson deliciously needle the other three passengers throughout the ride. O’Neil especially gives his character a particular gleam, adding an element of malice just under the surface, as if he knows a truth that the three dare not acknowledge. While it seems an odd scene to end the story on, given enough time to mediate on “The Mortal Remains”, it truly is the most excellent bookend from the delightful hilarity of “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”. Of the performances in the whole of Buster Scruggs, it’s Neeson’s turn as Impresario that’s one of his most evocative, heart-wrenching performances to date.
Though it’s being released as a Netflix Original, go see it on the big screen if given the opportunity during its limited engagement in early November. It’s the best way to receive the grandeur the Coens inserted into their anthology that will most certainly be missed on smaller screens. This isn’t to say that it’s not a fine film to watch from home, especially because its anthology design does make for easy pick-up-and-put-down without having to lose track of characters or motivations. For cinephiles and Coen Brothers fans, however, seeing it on the big screen is the kind of visual treat you’ve got to indulge in.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.