REVIEW: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Looks like we have an old case of the good, the bad and the dead, boys…

Out in the ol’ wild wild west, a series of both small and tall tales unravel before a smattering of characters who find themselves all haunted by the unyielding sheath of cold, climbie death.

It is no secret, if you know me, that I am under the belief that Joel and Ethan Coen are two of the greatest filmmakers of all-time. With a hard basing in philosophy, the Coen’s have churned out film after film of deep thinking, unrelenting character studies that examine themes aligning with the American Dream, a history of violence and the basic sins and virtues of human beings. Under the Coen’s, black comedies like The Big Lebowski and A Serious Man become parables on the meaning of nothingness; crime dramas like Fargo and No Country For Old Men become insights into humanity’s animalistic urges to indulge in violence; films about the arts like Inside Llewyn Davis and Hail, Caesar! become complete inversions of audience expectations. And yeah, I’m not a fan of the brother’s entire filmography; for example, I very much do not like True Grit, could never fully find myself enjoying Burn After Reading and from all accounts The Ladykillers is terrible… so let’s not go too far down that rabbit hole. However, even when the Coen’s make something inherently unenjoyable and just plainly not that good, their films still remain heavily fascinating. So bringing all this around to their newest effort, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, I will say, based on first impressions, I liked this film, but more on the level of fascination than enjoyment.

I want to more-or-less highlight what I meant by “based on first impressions”. Usually I find the most memorable and interesting films are ones that develop in your thoughts and feelings over time. For me, I could list countless films for which the first time I saw them I thought one way, but after an ample amount of time to just sit and think about said films, re-watch them and understand them for what they truly are, I would grow to feel something entirely different. I remember one time being told that some of the greatest things in life are a required taste, and for me, some of the Coen brother’s films fill that concept. Whereas my love for No Country For Old Men was almost instant for me, others from the brother’s filmography like The Big Lebowski, A Serious Man and Inside Llewyn Davis developed from a casual ‘like’ to a resounding adoration. Lately, whilst watching the brother’s films I have had a clearer understanding of how I feel about their works, like for instance with Hail, Caesar! for two years since its release, my opinion has not changed despite ample re-watches (by the way, I really liked – but not loved – that flick). So going into The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, I was half sure of myself, half curious to see whether the Coen’s would once again manage to stump me… and honestly, I think they managed to stump the whole audience.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a funny film. It’s also a dramatic film. It’s also a film devoted to homages. The Coen brothers have continuously leant into the Western genre on many fronts as their fascinations with old Western tropes have really established their style as an almost modernised take on the Western genre. Other than True Grit though, the Coen’s have never totally committed to making an actual film set in the old West. So The Ballad of Buster Scruggs almost entirely marks the brother’s very first “original” foray into the genre, and despite this, never do the brothers seem like they stumble in really building their envisioned world of America’s past. On that note, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a beautifully helmed film with elegant cinematography to frame the Coen’s world of ideas. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs looks to visually tell a story, and tell a story visually, it does.

ballad-of-buster-scruggs-tim-blake-nelson
(Netflix 2018)

Yet, as you may have noticed, it would seem I am procrastinating from really getting into the meat of what this film is about and what the filmmakers were trying to say… and to tell you the truth, I am struggling to understand what the Coen brothers have attempted to communicate in the midst of this gun-tottin’, coach-rattlin’ exploration of the wild West. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is certainly one of those films I noted before that is difficult to assess now upon first reviewing, but in time may prove to be a heavily insightful look at life and the human condition.

The main reason I have felt so stumped over this film is quite possibly due to its structure. If you are unaware, initially The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was meant to be a Netflix miniseries containing six episodes, working as an anthology from the traditionally film based brothers. Although, the Coen’s eventually decided to instead take all six stories and mould them into one big a** movie for Netflix instead. The result was not completely as jarring as you would think and instead flowed as well as it possibly could have. Yet, thematically, the six part, unrelated storytelling really played against the film’s strengths.

Despite having running concepts throughout, the six short films really varied in quality; one story would stand as top-tier Coen brothers and others would appear more as middle-tier Coen brothers. Luckily enough, there were no duds in the entirety of the film, yet The Ballad of Buster Scruggs never gave the audience time to develop their thoughts and feelings concerning any six of the stories entirely anyway. Sure I had my favourites, as would anyone who watches this film, but the fact each short is so short and skips to the next episode so quickly, forces the audience to unsuccessfully digest the Coen’s translated ideas and never entirely grasp the full picture of what’s going on most of the time. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs never escapes its original episodic format and therefore makes the experience feel like a rushed Netflix binging sesh which has its ups and downs but would ultimately be more fulfilling if the episodes were released at a weekly rate.

That’s not to say I did not like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and was not completely in the dark when watching this film. What I could identify as a clear through line made visible throughout the entirety of this film and its six chapters would have to be the recurring theme of death. The Western genre has always acknowledged death as crucial element of the genre’s repetitive narrative as the Coen brother’s pulling on death’s thread does indeed help to delve deeper into what was on the filmmaker’s mind when constructing these tales. The harshness of life, the fleetingness and transience of it all, is amplified in the dog-eat-dog Western setting of this film. The fact that any real meaning in one’s life may never come to fruition and that life compared to death, in general, may just be entirely meaningless is blatantly obvious as a theme in not only this film but the Coen’s entire filmography… kinda like how this film may be just that: meaningless. It’s hard to tell when watching a Coen brothers film… sure the film means something at the end of the day, but are the brothers only portraying said meaningless through meaningless itself? Difficult to say most of the time, but if you bare with me, I will try to get to the bottom of all this philosophical hoo-ha.

Sometimes the best way to explore philosophy is through anecdote or, more literately, parable. So I am under the belief the Coen brothers did not set out to originally have The Ballad of Buster Scruggs appear as episodes and rather parables. Instead of appearing similar to the Coen’s other Western ventures like True Grit or No Country For Old Men, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs holds more in similarity with the opening sequence of A Serious Man. The stories are played to appear as more snapshot lessons in life and death and the meaning behind it all, rather than just casual Western shenanigans.

To put it plainly, the six stories all feature leads who appear victimised – usually by other people, but mostly by the world they live in. In the first episode, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the lively protagonist of Buster (sidenote: an excellent comedic turn from Tim Blake Nelson) may appear an unmatchable and unbeatable threat to the masses, however his persona of a happy-go-lucky gunslinger with an inflated ego, makes him a product of his time and an easy target of society. The second episode, Near Algodones, makes its protagonist – a wannabe bank robber – a victim of his own desire and temptation in his somewhat pursuit for completion. The third episode, Meal Ticket (my favourite), sees its two stagecoach performing protagonists victims of profit, leading the two to do anything in order to achieve said profit. The fourth episode, All Gold Canyon, almost shows man falling victim to greed and consequently falling victim to nature, to then natural causes. The Gal Who Got Rattled, the fifth episode (that could very well be a feature length film purely based off its scope), shows quite possibly the most innocent victim in Zoe Kazan’s character who’s life goes from bad to worse, for seemingly no real reason at all other than bad luck and inconvenience. And the last episode, The Mortal Remains (probably my least favourite) then shows the victimisation people inflict on one another… at least I think that’s what the last one is about… to be honest, I really tuned out towards the last episode. But what’s important to note is that due to the Western caricatures the Coen’s paint these characters as – with their inflated egos, knack for greed or innocent outlooks – what they all ultimately fall victim to is the creeping hands of death.

The best solution I can find in the mayhem of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is that everything and everyone, despite good or bad, will fall victim to death – the fairest punishment of them all. And as death haunts the chapters of this film, I sit and continue to ponder if any of my analysis concerning this film is remotely on point with what the Coen’s were trying to translate… but hey, that’s just, like, my own opinion, man.

To begin in concluding, I would like to definitively name my favourites of the short films featured in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The episode, Meal Ticket, with a stoic Liam Neeson and dramatic Harry Melling (that’s Dudley from Harry Potter by the way) stands out as my clear favourite. Featuring the two travelling in a stagecoach – with a twist – the episode is quite possibly the best at visual storytelling. It moves in sequences of characters seeping in dead silence to characters speaking heightened performance-wise monologues. The episode has real Tales From the Crypt vibes with an ending so very chilling (literally), everything the audience essentially knows about the characters are warped and morphed into something entirely different and actually kind of profound. And so counteracting this episode, my second favourite would have to be the Tom Waits led All Gold Canyon which may be the most parable-like of them all. Featuring ‘man’, of greed and profit, like an unwanted, feared beast stumbling into a valley brimming of nature in search of a grand fortune, All Gold Canyon seemingly explores human interference in the natural cycle – the circle of life – causing a disruption that only ushers in greater sin to once heavenly untouched ‘Garden of Eden’-like land. All Gold Canyon, backed by an incredibly insane though passionate performance from Waits, really feels standalone in its own regard, as if it could be a cautionary tale about man, nature and sin, and the greater, more vicious cycle that it all contributes to.

As for the other episodes, The Gal Who Got Rattled starring Zoe Kazan and discount Keanu Reeves was so rich and fulfilling, it could have been a feature length film from the Coen’s, easily. I liked the James Franco lead series of unfortunate events that was Near Algodones but in some cases, it left me wanting a bit more. The final episode, The Mortal Remains, might have been more fascinating and entertaining a watch if it were not for featuring towards the end and subsequently feeling bogged down after the first five episodes. And lastly, the titular first episode, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was so goofy, so eccentric, so unnatural that it half worked for me and half didn’t. I ultimately enjoyed the musically tuned episode as it may have very well been the most straightforward of the six with a lead character who very much felt like a resident of the Coen’s fantastical depiction of the town of Fargo – a polite killer with an unflinching smile. However my quarrels with the opening episode would probably have to come down to how tonally different it was to the others and also consequently how short it was in runtime… then again, life itself is short… and death catches up to you so unexpectedly that you can either fight it or, as many of the characters in this film do, embrace it.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a visually spectacular looking film brimming with excellent performances and two filmmakers behind it whom seemingly have a lot on their mind. I think, in some ways, everything the Coen brothers tried to do in this film worked wholeheartedly – the problem is, I am just yet to crack their code concerning this film quite yet. However, don’t think just because I am thematically stumped by this film does not mean I am uninterested. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is certainly one of those films I noted before: a film that is built to grow on you long after your first viewing experience. Playing like a series of beautifully dark ballads to an audience not entirely well versed to the ever-shifting language patterns of the Coen brothers, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an entertaining enigma, that will leave you both laughing and thinking long after Liam Neeson draws the curtains on another late night chicken show.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a bloody… CRUSADE!!

 

*DISCLAIMER: I realise this is a Netflix film and I don’t usually review those (because I much prefer the cinema experience), however I saw The Ballad of Buster Scruggs at the Adelaide Film Festival, so for this one time, I’ll let it slide.

 

Image Sources:

  • BLT Communications, LLC, 2018, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), IMP Awards, TMDb, viewed 24 October 2018, <www.impawards.com/2018/ballad_of_buster_scruggs.html> (Featured Image)
  • Chitwood, A 2018, The Coen Brothers’ ‘Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ Is a Movie Now; Will Crash Oscar Season, Collider, Complex Media, viewed 24 October 2018, <collider.com/ballad-of-buster-scruggs-movie-coen-brothers/>

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