Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
Tim Blake Nelson: Buster Scruggs
James Franco: Cowboy
Liam Neeson: Impresario
Tom Waits: Prospector
Zoe Kazan: Alice Longabaugh
Tyne Daly: Lady
Screenplay by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (segments based on short stories by Jack London and Stewart Edward White)
Directed by: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Rated R for some strong violence
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is such a cinematic experience that I wish I had seen it during its limited theatrical run. However, its structure seems suited for a home on a streaming service like Netflix. Despite all the cries for original content from Hollywood instead of the usual reboots, rehashes, remakes, sequels, prequels, and extended universes, this movie wouldn't have been a big box office hit. This is a Western anthology of six episodes that ruminates on the myth of the West, the randomness of life, and the darkness of humanity. Amidst all the sweeping vistas and stunning landscapes is an existential experience that is far from light entertainment. Yet, this is a very entertaining movie and one that should be seen.
A deep dive into the plot of each vignette would be tiresome, so I'll just provide the basic. The opening scene, "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," stars Tim Blake Nelson as the titular gunslinger who swears he is no misanthrope. "Near Algodones" tells the story of a cowboy (James Franco) who gets in over his head while attempting a bank robbery. That particular story contains a priceless punchline at a hangman's gallows. "Meal Ticket," by the far the most bleak entry, gives us Liam Neeson as a traveling impresario who puts an armless and legless man onstage to orate poetry, soliloquies, and speeches. Tom Waits plays a prospector in my personal favorite segment, "All Gold Canyon" (based on a Jack London story). Zoe Kazan plays a young woman on a wagon train to Oregon in "The Girl Who Got Rattled," a sweet, if meandering tale with a heartbreaking ending. Finally, "The Mortal Remains" is a Sartre-esque one-act set in a wagon ride, as five characters contemplate the meaning of life and death.
Westerns are ingrained in our film history. I grew up with my dad watching Gunsmoke and airings of John Wayne movies on TV. Later, I discovered Clint Eastwood, Don Siegel, and Sergio Leone. A mystique surrounds those stories and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs takes a twisted glee in turning them on their head and focusing on the senseless violence and random cruelty of the Old West. There are cowboys, horses, gunfights, wagon trains, saloons, and remarkable scenery, but each tale is also spiced with O. Henry 's twists, Rod Serling's bitter irony, and the Coen's own sense of humor. You think you know where a tale is headed, and sometimes it goes there, but then it adds one or more extra layers that pack a wallop.
This is shot very much like a traditional Western, but what stands out is how the photography shows off the scenery while making the characters look very small. The movie is loaded with long shots and the characters appear tiny and insignificant. "The Mortal Remains" is the only vignette that deviates from this, but I think that is part of the point of that particular story. This is a strange, wonderful film that deludes the heroism of traditional Westerns and presents its cruel randomness. Nature doesn't play favorites and life, as people on social media love to remind us, is not fair.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is one of best movies from 2018.