Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a Western anthology film directed by the Coen Brothers, telling six distinct stories of varying moods and styles that add up to a sweeping view of the Wild West.

Each vignette fits neatly into a certain Coen style. The first, which shares its name with the film, follows a psychotic yet cheerful outlaw, breaking the fourth wall and acting all too jovial as he provokes other gunslingers. Buster Scruggs has the violent tendencies of Anton Chigurh paired with the oddly light styling of a Raising Arizona character. This rather disparate character is followed by tales of ironic punishment, desperation, and other ideas familiar to anyone who has watched a Coen Brothers film.

If you wanted to quickly summarize the Coen Brothers style, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs would be the perfect showcase.

The question, then, is how well these short vignettes hold up compared to full-length Coen Brothers films. I find they all tend to land in the middle tier, perfectly capturing their black humor and bleak sense of humanity, but never quite saying much outside of itself – they have a tendency toward shaggy dog stories that can get a bit much when six play back to back. If you like the Coen Brothers, you’re probably going to like this film – I just doubt it will be anyone’s favorite.

What it certainly has going for it is the visual style. The initial segment with Buster Scruggs sets the mood; his plain white outfit suggests he’s stepped out of some modern dinner show instead of the actual Wild West. He offers up some bizarre musical numbers, all between violently dispatching suitably gruff men. Tim Blake Nelson is wonderful in the role, and the surreal nature of this vignette helps open up the possibilities of what follows.

The other vignettes are suitably stylized – it feels as if the film is trying to cover the entire ground of Western cinema in one quick swoop. Meal Ticket mixes the gaudy aesthetics of a circus side show with elevated speeches and haunting stops between acts – Harry Melling gives a mesmerizing performance as the Shakespeare-reciting man with no limbs. The Mortal Remains offers up a ride in a stage coach through an increasingly bleak landscape as its travelers tear each other down.

All Gold Canyon and The Gal Who Got Rattled take a more naturalistic approach. Tom Waits carries a quiet sequence as a prospector in a valley, searching for a “Mr. Pocket” that will make his journey worthwhile. He’s cast alone against this beautiful valley. Meanwhile, The Gal Who Got Rattled follows a woman as she joins a caravan across the prairie. Both sequences seem to find wonder in natural landscapes.

None of these narratives could sustain themselves for too long; the way they mix together is key. One small problem I have is pacing – The Ballad of Buster Scruggs kicks off with what I believe are its two shortest (and lightest) vignettes, causing those that follow to feel longer than they are. There’s a consistent level of quality among the six pieces, but I wish Near Algodones could have been used to break up the rather dense segments that follow. It’s too light to appreciate as much near the opening, but I feel like it would have been a welcome break between All Gold Canyon and The Gal Who Got Rattled.

There’s not much more to say without diving too deep into individual segments. It will make you laugh, make you wince in horror, sometimes with the same action. This is classically Coen, in bite-sized pieces. Their style is seamless for short-form narratives, little ironic moral tales that pack a punch. I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing them attempt another film with the same structure, so the film must have been a success. Yet I find myself looking back and wanting more – but would it be a Coen Brothers film without that lingering feeling?

4 Stars Out of 5

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