The Coen brothers are not afraid of death—at least not in their films. It is a tricky topic that can be handled in a vari- ety of ways, almost all of which they have tried in the 17 films that they have created together. But what “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” (2018) accomplishes differently is that it uses its anthology structure to tack- le the topic from myriad angles, all while set in their beloved myth of the cowboy’s West, where death can occur at any foul turn. The film is artfully produced, with its color-washed cinematography, nostalgic score and trademark witty dialogue. In a way, it is the most Coens-y film the Coens have ever made. But as fans of their films can come to expect, they are still bringing something new to the table.
Buster Scruggs works as a six-part an- thology film, with each short story cov- ering a different aspect of the Western mythos. They are tied together by a book that serves as their framing device (much like an early Disney cartoon), and although this concept adds to the mythos of the sto- ries, the transition sequences are a bit long, since they offer no substance other than to keep the motif.
The titular story is first and is the most effective of the six. The comic musical stars Tim Blake Nelson as Buster Scruggs, a cheery outlaw of many monikers, whose trigger finger itches at any minor scuf- fle. The contrast of high fantasy with gut-churning gore is one thing that the Co- ens do well, and here they present it with glee. Although the Coens often fill their works with wacky side characters who have to battle each other for screen time, the focus stays on Buster Scruggs, whose personality makes him an undeniable star. Scruggs deserves a spot in the pantheon of Coen’s greats—right up there with Barton Fink and The Dude.
The film also succeeds in its catchy orig- inal songs, which Nelson sings with great abandon, showing off his warbling chops. “Buster Scruggs” is the lightest story of the group; as the film moves along the stories grow increasingly darker in scope. This happens gradually, though, as the second story “Near Algodones” is still a comedy, just without the singing of the first. James Franco stars as yet another outlaw on the run who often finds himself in life or death predicaments. This is one of the weaker narratives of the bunch, not because it’s bad, but more because it’s forgettable in comparison to the strength that some of the others exhibit.
The third story, “Meal Ticket,” crosses the aforementioned threshold into dra- ma without too much shock, allowing the viewer to realize the true intentions of the anthology to follow. Liam Neeson stars as a low-level impresario who brings a para- plegic orator from town to town, hoping to make a meager living by exploiting his tal- ents as entertainment. The standout actor of the piece is Harry Melling (best known as Dudley from Harry Potter) who imbues his character—simply credited as the Art- ist—with immense sorrow, despite not say- ing much other than what he orates. With the end of this story, it is clear that the Co- ens intended this anthology to be one with themes that go much deeper than that of the setting.
Now, at the halfway point, the fourth story, “All Gold’s Canyon,” is a refreshing change of scenery, as the dusty, barren landscape is traded in for greener pastures. Famed musician Tom Waits stars as a griz- zled prospector whose hunt for gold leads him to a secluded glade that he believes is his saving grace. The cinematography in this story is exceptionally well done, as the canyon visually sparkles in the sunlight through lush colors. The one damaging point is the bit too obviously CGI-ed wild- life, which, although majestic, possesses a visibly fake quality that distracts from the camera work. Fifth is “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” the only female-led piece of the bunch, which stars Zoe Kazan as a wom- an who finds herself on the Oregon trail without much of a plan for when she gets there. This piece is the longest in the group, which the viewer may feel at times, but it’s one of the anthology’s best. The slow trip across the plains is drawn out for a rea- son, as it allows us to truly understand the characters and their intentions. Kazan does some of the best acting work of the entire film, as her Alice Longabaugh is emotional yet composed throughout the difficult jour- ney, especially in her relationship with one of the wagon train’s leaders. The final story, “The Mortal Remains,” follows a group of strangers sharing a stagecoach to a mys- terious destination. This story sticks out from the bunch as being a bit less within the Western genre than the rest (no more cowboys here, just a mere fur trapper), but the character work is interesting as the fig- ures’ personalities butt heads. The story works as a fitting closer to the sextet as its final ruminations linger once the book has been shut.
“The Battle of Buster Scruggs,” like most anthologies, is a mixed bag. There are some real gold nuggets hidden in this land, but some searching is required to find them– just as the masterful writing is standard throughout, but some of the charms can get lost in the Western dust. What shines through shines so brilliantly–some ca- reer-highlight performances are crafted and beautiful scenery makes its way across your laptop screen.
Well, that’s the biggest issue with the film; it was released primarily through Net- flix. This is a piece that would work better on the big screen, as the sprawling plains and wagon trains deserve to be stretched out beyond sight, but instead feel cramped within the confines of your personal de- vice. Yes, there are positives to the Netflix release, as it allows wider access to the film. However, the Coens, whose follow- ing is big enough that even a passing fan would shell out the admission to a theater, shouldn’t have to go this route. The display of Old West charm and tragedy in “The Bal- lad of Buster Scruggs” may not be the most present in the Coens’ work, but its central themes and filmmaking gravitas makes it a worthy addition to their pantheon.