Movie Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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It is my opinion that anthology films as a whole have been pretty uniformly unwatchable. For every exception to this rule (Bunuel’s later works, Dekalog, Monty Python’s feature films, Coffee and Cigarettes, etc.), you’ll find ten films that use the structure as an excuse to tell stories that could never hold your attention to feature length, and can barely do so at a shorter one. It’s not that good anthology films can’t be made, it’s that most turn out to be schlocky horror flicks, strung together with little consideration for how each section will fit together.

The Coen brothers have managed to make their mark on the genre by neatly tying together six separate tales of old west legend, each with enough in it to expand to feature length. I think that’s the key to what makes each short work so well: you’d be willing to see any one of them last an extra hour or so to tell its story. If anything, the only complaint I’d have would be that some of the stories were given too short a time to reach their full potential, and if expanded could say more than what they got the chance to.

To go in depth into each tale would make this article about six or seven pages long, so I’ll stick to the basics. In the film you’ll find familiar faces like Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Tim Blake Nelson and James Franco. The cast is packed with the typical Coen mix of masterful performers and unknown actors whose immediate appearance says everything you need to know about their character. The performances are excellent all around, with Tom Waits turning in what might be his best performance since Down by Law over thirty years ago.

Speaking of excellence, the Coen brothers have managed to write some of their most entertaining pieces yet, with the final section being quite possibly the best on screen conversation in their thirty plus year careers.

I’ll briefly rank the stories in order of favorite to least favorite, but should state that none of these were “bad,” but that there are some varying levels of quality among them.

  1. All Gold Canyon
  2. The Mortal Remains
  3. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
  4. The Gal Who Got Rattled
  5. Meal Ticket
  6. Near Algodones

Each section holds a unique charm that the others don’t, but an overarching theme of existentialism holds up throughout. The characters actions all seem to be ultimately pointless, with missed opportunities, unfortunate misunderstandings and unnecessary violence dragging every last one of them down to a dark place. The only thing to be done, it seems, is trudge forward to the next stop on the trail, not knowing where you’ll end up. Some characters take it with an infectious smile (Buster), the rest brood on what they have done to the West, and what it has done to them.

9/10

Note: I was lucky enough to catch a screening of this film at the Cleveland Cinematheque, but should mention that this is a Netflix film, and that it can be readily viewed by anyone with a subscription.