Ispent much of my last review talking about how rare it is to find something weird and surprising in cinema. “Weird and surprising” could easily describe my favorite movies, as well as a large chunk of the Coen brothers’ cinematic canon. Joel and Ethan Coen have spent much of their career weaving stories of unconventional characters partaking in over-the-top antics. For those who love the brothers, each new movie provides another opportunity to saunter through their wonderful imaginations.
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is an anthology of six different stories set in the Wild West. Each spans a wide range of tones and themes: There’s broad, dark comedy and incredible, jaw-dropping acts of violence. In fact, most of the stories told in the gorgeously filmed vignettes are infused with the brutality of frontier living, where happiness is fleeting and dying horribly feels like a foregone conclusion. It’s like the cinematic equivalent of a game of Oregon Trail.
The movie opens with titular Buster Scruggs, a white-clad singing cowpoke, making his way across dusty trails and rocky vistas. If people don’t already love Tim Blake Nelson, they will by the end of the segment. He’s the cheeriest, most-murderin’ son-of-a-gun ever committed to the cinematic medium. Buster’s story helps set up a theme that revolves around untimely demise. It’s like the Coens’ version of Seth McFarlane’s painfully unfunny “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” except it’s painful and occasionally funny.
What really comes across here is how effectively the brothers tell stories without hitting audiences over the head with unnecessary details. They are masters of “show, don’t tell” and engage willing audiences to use their brains to fill in some of the intentional blanks—gaps in the story that are open to interpretation, to allow audiences to try and work out certain elements. I think I had a pretty clear understanding of how these six stories were connected and the overall theme of the movie. However, it was based on my own feelings and observations. The beauty of a film like “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is how different everyone will process the film altogether.
The movie is packed with great talent. James Franco turns up as a lackluster bank robber who ends up at the wrong end of the rope on multiple occasions. He’s featured in the most efficient and darkly hilarious of the six stories. It also features Stephen Root in the most chilling cinematic moment of 2018, clad in pots and pans, screaming “bad shot” as he hunts his prey.
Liam Neeson turns up as a grizzled, crusty manager who tours with a unique actor from town to town to try and make ends meet. The film’s final segment features a carriage full of talented character actors—Tyne Daly, Saul Rubinek, Chelcie Ross and Brendan Gleeson. Tom Waits even shows up under a thick layer of the dusty road, as a prospector in one of the less subtle segments.
This is the kind of movie streaming services like Netflix seem perfectly suited for. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is unconventional and would have ended up in a handful of big-city theaters (oh, the irony) in limited release, making anyone outside of New York or Los Angeles impatient to see this oddball flick. On Netflix, we the weirdos, have instant access.
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” has few peers, cinematically speaking. It’s an extremely gorgeous piece of Western cinema. There are moments of laughter, tears and befuddlement. It is a movie I expect many will love but many more might find confounding. It’s rare to see a film that zips and zaps so broadly across the emotional spectrum. It’s a gift the Coen brothers have been continuing to master for over 30 years. For fans, Buster Scruggs is a welcome addition to their cast of cantankerous characters.