Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen)



A man on horseback travels aimlessly through the Wild West. The scenery is grand and imposing, the ditty he sings conversely quaint and quirky. He is Tim Blake Nelson of the reedy voice and wide grin, the song a Coen brothers creation that - and not in isolation here - makes one wonder why these genre-savvy siblings still haven't tried their hand at making a musical. The man stops for a drink in a dry county, and shoots everyone else in the bar. He travels on, though not for long - The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an anthology feature, and Nelson's titular gunslinger's ballad is only one of six. Would that it were all of them. It's a hoot.


A man, not on horseback, enters a bank situated somewhere - nowhere - in the Wild West. He is James Franco, dour and unwelcome, and he proposes a potential brush with death to the bank's sole teller. He will soon endure a few such brushes himself - not quite enough to make of these brushes a running joke, though perhaps that is the joke. This ballad is drolly amusing, and fitting material for the short feature that it is, but no more than that.


A man (are you spotting a pattern?) travels doggedly through the Wild West in the freezing cold, driving a wagon that houses another man, literally limbless, who performs recitals of stories, poems and other works to increasingly nonplussed audiences. Possibly his name is Ethan or Joel, as the effect on these audiences may be similar, but he is in fact Harry Melling, the driver Liam Neeson. This ballad is frigid and static, and seems more and more to be going somewhere surprising with each passing moment. It goes somewhere, yes, but somewhere surprising? This ballad has one good gag involving a chicken, and another for me personally, as the last thing I expected to see in any movie this year (or any other) was Obi-Wan Kenobi drunkenly singing the Sash to a terrified Dudley Dursley with no arms nor legs. It's the little things, I suppose.


A man (obviously) interrupts a stunning scene in a valley in the Wild West where the wildness comes in the form of beautiful, bounteous nature. He is Tom Waits, and his ragged presence coupled with the sheer carnage he enacts upon this scene are one mighty interruption indeed. He is seeking gold, and he will find it, but not without some startling difficulty. A typically injurious Coen twist arguably packs an even greater punch due to the serious sagging which this movie has, by this point, undergone, but even it can't quite redeem the general listlessness that has pervaded The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. This ballad is a return to form after a mercifully brief break, but not resoundingly so.


A woman (at long last) sits at the head of a dinner table, though she is of little consequence. A man sits further down, though he is of only a little more consequence. A woman sits next to him, his sister, and they are travelling across the Wild West to reach Oregon, where prospects of business and matrimony may await. An unfortunate incident sets this woman, Zoe Kazan, on a somewhat different path across the wilderness, though matrimony may yet await. Longer than any of the other ballads, it's here that one observes what the Coen brothers are capable of as storytellers - it's softly surprising, a little tart here and there, populated by finely drawn characters, and emotive in manners you likely hadn't considered it could be. This ballad's technical construction is robust, its final shot is a real keeper, its performances are superb, its casual racism is disappointing.


A woman and four men sit uncomfortably within a stagecoach moving across the Wild West. It is sunset. They are quite the mixture of characters; the threat of emotional eruption looms ever larger over their strained, edgy conversations. They are a selection of actors including Tyne Daly, which you'll correctly imagine was the single most satisfying element of this whole movie for me. Their discussions are engaging, their arguments more so, but Buster Scruggs has once again lost its sense of vitality, and one is once again grateful for the brevity of each of these ballads. This ballad is the last ballad; may the Coens return now to writing symphonies.

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