Review - 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs'
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs seems like a film made specifically for me in mind. For one, I love a well pieced-together anthology-type film with a central theme that connects all of the stories together. Two, I adore westerns. Combine these two elements under the direction of the legendary Coen brothers and you have a dangerously indulgent cocktail that I can’t resist.
With Buster Scruggs, the Coens weave a tapestry about death and consequence through six expertly told tales that run the gamut between gut-bustingly hilarious, borderline slap-stick humor, to achingly sincere and tragic. These six stories span the various corners of the mid-west and are told through the eyes of vastly different protagonists in all manner of works of life, and who all have different motives and world-views. It’s a damn miracle that all of these stories coalesce into a cohesive whole, though perhaps this is because of the aforementioned over-arching theme of death playing an integral role in each story that these seemingly disparate parts are able to coexist.
To give a vague example; one of the shorts features a rootin’-tootin’ musically-inclined outlaw cowboy with a penchant for shooting up every saloon he enters and then singing (and sometimes dancing) about his exploits. Juxtapose that with a later short that is nearly humorless, and above all heart-felt and romantic. You would think this would be a tonally jarring experience, but the Coens know exactly how to make these puzzle pieces fit, and ultimately, how to make them sing.
The Coens trademark humor and witty writing is on full display in Buster Scruggs, which is again paired with their frequent inclinations towards sudden, shocking bursts of violence. It’s amazing that even after over twenty films they are still able to surprise me and keep everything feeling fresh and unpredictable.
Three-to-four of the stories told here give me everything I want and hope for out of a Coens production, the other two are also great, but probably wouldn’t be strong enough to stand on their own separately from the collection. Of my favorites, the first is “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”, which obviously pretty much has to be good because it’s the title of the film. I mentioned this one earlier but I’ll give it another shout-out. Featuring Tim Blake Nelson as the ballad-singing-guitar-playing sharpshooter, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is the most comedic and unabashedly musical of all of the stories, and it’s the perfect intro into this colorful western world. Another favorite of mine is “All Gold Canyon”, it’s one of the longer stories in the collection and revolves around a prospector (Tom Waits) who after a long period of time searching, finds a “pocket” of gold, only to be confronted by another man who hopes to reap the benefits of his hard work. This story is semi-serious, but also darkly funny and Tom Waits is amazing as the surly, but optimistic prospector. “The Gal Who Got Rattled” and “The Mortal Remains” end the film on a spectacularly high note. “The Gal Who Got Rattled” is about the beginnings of a sweet courtship between a man (Bill Heck) and a woman (Zoe Kazan) while traveling the treacherous Oregon trail. “The Mortal Remains” then closes out the film on a somber but cathartic note, and is the most other-worldly in look and feel.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is also a beautiful film to look at, Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography captures the allure of the mountains and the plains of the mid-west perfectly. Unfortunately I had no choice but to watch the film on my home TV through Netflix, but I can only imagine how jaw-dropping this film would have looked on the big screen. The score by Carter Burwell and all of the talents he has curated come together into one of my favorite scores/soundtracks of the year. It’s very western just like you would imagine, but there’s so much soul to the music that helped pull me into the world of the film.
It’s so hard to tell one great story, but to tell six, and to have them all be near-perfect, well, that’s a hat trick that you don’t see very often. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a masterclass in storytelling and easily one of the best films of the year.