The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Git along, lil’ doggies.

(2018) Western (NetflixTim Blake Nelson, Clancy Brown, David Krumholtz, James Franco, Stephen Root, Ralph Ineson, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Jefferson Mays, Prudence Wright Holmes, Bill Heck, Grainger Hines, Brendan Gleeson, Saul Rubinek, Tyne Daly, Chelcie Ross, Jonjo O’Neill, Jordy Laucomer, Brett Hughson, Thea Lux, Danny McCarthy, Harry Meling, Jiji Hise. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

The Coen Brothers have been one of my favorite directors going back to Raising Arizona. Their mix of cynicism and quirky humor have made even the lesser efforts highly watchable. When they’re on their game, there are none better.

They have always had a soft spot for the American West – many of their films are set there, if not out and out westerns – and this, their newest film is an anthology of six tales set in the old West. The opening tale which gives the movie its name features Nelson as a singing cowboy who turns out to be a cross between Gene Autry and Clint Eastwood. There are moments of horrific violence and wicked humor which ends in an unexpected way. This is my favorite segment of the six (and the shortest) and ranks right up there with some of their best work ever.

“Near Algodones” stars Franco as a bank robber and keeps up the momentum. Franco plays the luckiest – and most luckless – thief ever. While less unexpected than the first segment, it nonetheless is entertaining. “Meal Ticket” starts the film overall towards a darker turn. It stars Neeson as an impresario who employs an armless and legless thespian (Meling) who does soliloquys in a wagon that converts into an impromptu stage until…well, you need to see for yourself.

“All Gold Canyon” features Tom Waits as a prospector who strikes it rich but then must do battle with a claim jumper. It’s loosely based on a Jack London short story. “The Girl Who Got Rattled” is about a young woman (Kazan) traveling with a wagon train who is looking for love – and finds it. I also liked this segment, nearly as much as the first one. Finally, there’s “Mortal Remains” in which a group traveling in a stagecoach are treated to a tale told by a foppish bounty hunter (O’Neill). In many ways this is the deepest segment from a philosophical standpoint but it does make for an odd way to end the film.

This isn’t as cohesive as the best Cohen brothers movies are – it couldn’t be, given that it’s an anthology – but when it is at its best (the first and fifth segments) it is a riveting piece of filmmaking, from the beautiful cinematography in “All Gold Canyon” to the ironic wit in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” There is a definitely cynical tone here; it feels like over the past decade the films of the Coen boys have taken the point of view that there is nothing to recommend most people and the best thing we can do with our lives is die. I think I hold out a little more hope than all that, but they at least make their cynicism entertaining. Although I wish I could have seen this on the big screen, Netflix subscribers should make a point of adding this to their queue if they haven’t already seen it.

REASONS TO SEE: Has all the quirkiness you come to expect from the Coen brothers. The opening chapter is one of the best things they’ve ever done.
REASONS TO AVOID: Waffles between hysterically funny and bleaker than bleak.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the longest film the Coen brothers have ever directed, and the first to be shot on digital media.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews: Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rustler’s Rhapsody
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Sonata

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