The Ballad of Buster Scruggs - Review

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a slow, groundbreaking collage of the Coen’s greatest talents that occasionally settles for comfort over innovation.

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The Coen brothers’ last film, Hail Caesar!, disappointed some and confused others. The film certainly has its fans, but is likely to fall into the Burn After Reading camp rather than the trove of legendary films the duo have made over the decades. Their newest film for Netflix began as a TV series, and somewhere along the line turned into the film we see now. In six roughly half hour stories, the Cohen’s return to the Old West. The quality varies, but for the most part, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs feels like a return to simpler filmmaking, despite the film’s 800+ special effects. In essence, it is classically Coen.

The first short, from which the film takes its name, is inarguably the most stylish. Tim Blake Nelson’s Buster is just the right mix of cocky and humble to make him an instantly memorable character, his white suit and black guitar only adding to the illusion. His scenes feel choreographed to the point of being on rails, which I can only imagine was the intention for a character so sure of himself and his abilities. There are more laughs in this short than anywhere else, so take it in while you can, because things get bleak very fast. It’s an old story by now, but if there is any reason to watch a Coen brothers film, it’s for their skill in dark comedy. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs both benefits and stumbles in its storybook format, giving shorts like “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” and “Near Algodones” plenty of comedic relief amidst the death and barrenness, meanwhile, “Meal Ticket” may be the most depressing thing the brothers have shot yet. Liam Neeson’s impresario adds moments of physical humor, but the story is largely mired in tragedy. Acting from Harry Potter’s Harry Melling is fantastic, done almost solely through facial expressions and a repetitious monologue about America that invokes the gravity of Shakespeare. There’s almost nothing like this section out there, at least not so poignant. This is the raw emotion of Inside Llewyn Davis and the bitterness of No Country for Old Men, feeding into something with practically limitless potential.  

Not every section is equal, however. “The Gal who Got Rattled” is benefited by great acting from Zoe Kazan, but feels long winded. It takes up a large chunk of the middle of the film, and goes too long without any meaningful action or humor to remain engaging. Thankfully every section has a fantastic ending, which helps to shorten the drag, but it feels like damage control. “All Gold Canyon” is the best of the crop, taking a simple premise based on a Jack London story and making it entertaining despite its slow pace. Tom Waits as a prospector is about as good a casting as I can imagine, and he sings too! The storytelling is humorous, visual, and gorgeous, on top of plenty of action and suspense to keep the audience interested.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is not quite the flawless masterpiece of Fargo or Barton Fink, nor the legendary comedy of The Big Lebowski. It is, by design, fragmented and slow. Starting the film with the breakneck “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” section makes the film feel incredibly slow at points, and while closer “The Mortal Remains” works as a vehicle for its actors, it is not especially clever or creative for the Coens. That is the general vibe of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Not particularly inspired, but a more than solid entry into the long and increasingly groundbreaking Coen brothers filmography.