One of the most exciting yet baffling movies of 2018 is none other than “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”. Exciting in that it’s the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, a filmmaking tandem that always has me champing at the bit for what they have up their collective sleeves. Baffling in trying to figure out what this movie intended to be (it’s said that it was originally written as an episodic television series). Also Netflix’s promotional model didn’t exactly help things.
Now the movie is out and we have a clearer vision of what “Buster Scruggs” is all about. It’s far from what you would consider a conventional movie. Instead it is a collection of six unrelated short stories, each telling its own tale “of the American frontier”. Each has its own unique flavor and each highlight different aspects of the Coen’s filmmaking brilliance which has long cemented them among the very best in modern cinema.
The first is “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”, a tale of a sharpshooting singing cowboy hysterically played by Tim Blake Nelson. Think Gene Autry with a violent edge. It’s followed by “Near Algodones” where James Franco can’t seem to keep his head out of a noose. Third is “Meal Ticket” featuring Liam Neeson as a struggling traveling showman and his lone atraction – a limbless thespian orator played by Harry Melling.
“All Gold Canyon” starts the second half with Tom Waits as a grizzled prospector mining for gold in a pristine mountain valley. It’s the slowest of the six yarns but it meanders in the best possible way. “The Gal Who Got Rattled” is the most surprising and bittersweet tale of the bunch. Zoe Kazan plays a young woman traveling by wagon train to Oregon. And the film ends with “The Mortal Remains”, a gothic tale with a tilt about five people on a late evening stagecoach ride. Think of an offbeat Western episode of The Twilight Zone.
While each tale is completely distinct they still feel cut from the same cloth. Each find the Coens tipping their wide-brimmed hats to a genre they clearly love, embracing classic tropes and paying homage along the way. Yet the tones from story to story couldn’t be more different. They bounce from whimsical to heartbreaking, hysterical to tragic, violent to serene.
If there is one throughline connecting all of these stories it would be the theme of death. It’s something familiar to Coen brothers movies and here they explore in a variety of ways. Their handling of it is sometimes bloody and downright gruesome. Other times it lingers in the distance and we see more of its effect. And in typical Coen brothers fashion they’ll have you laughing at it in one scene and shocked by it in the next.
From start to finish “Buster Scruggs” flaunts the stamps of its creators. It’s rich with their signature dense wordplay and bursts of rib-splitting absurdity. Yet there are moments of tenderness and heart that are sure to catch people by surprise. Toss in Bruno Delbonnel’s dazzling cinematography and yet another fabulous score from Carter Burwell (a composer who has never had a problem operating on the Coen brothers’ quirky wavelength).
“Buster Scruggs” is sure to leave some people scratching their heads and may not satisfy those hungry for a full-length feature. But for those willing to get onboard, it is a sparkling example of an anthology done right. From the opening credits to the final scroll the Coens lean into their creative freedom and show off an undeniable joy of filmmaking. And whether they are honoring or satirizing the Western genre, they adoringly navigate their brilliant ensemble cast through the violence of the ‘Old West‘ and through the indelible complexities of the human spirit. It ends up being a truly delightful romp.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS