Usually, when I’m going into a new film, especially one for which I’m writing a review, I try to go in knowing as little as possible. This was exceptionally difficult for me to do for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs because I am a staunch devotee of The Coen Brothers. One of the first movies I ever remember seeing at home as a kid was Raising Arizona. My dad has always loved pretty much all of The Coen Brothers movies, and it’s something over which we share a great deal of joy. So it was difficult not to look up every single possible, damn thing related to this film before seeing it.
I’m really glad I didn’t because I was pleasantly surprised. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which I thought was another Coen Bros’ Americana piece like O Brother Where Art Thou? Or a straight-up Western revival like their reimagining of True Grit. Instead, it’s neither, and also both simultaneously. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an anthology film. I’d like to say CreepShow is to horror as The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is to Westerns. There are six vignettes, differing in length, tone, subject matter, and starring SO MANY PEOPLE.
“…six Western vignettes, differing in length, tone, subject matter, and starring SO MANY PEOPLE.”
Let’s see, there’s Tim Blake Nelson (in the titular role of Buster Scruggs in possibly the most hilarious performance in the entire film), Stephen Root, Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, Tyne Daly, James Franco, Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck, David Krumholz, and many others including TOM FUCKING WAITS. Excuse my language but any time that Tom Waits is in a movie is a cause for uproarious celebration in my opinion. It’s strange because when you think about Tom Waits and the Coen Bros, it seems like an obvious choice and something that must’ve already happened but no, this is the first time, and Waits’ segment of the film is incredible.
As I mentioned before, the tone changes in each vignette, going from a blood-soaked Gene Autry-esque cowboy musical in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” featuring Tim Blake Nelson in his most raucously funny performance. On to a woeful John Ford/Sam Peckinpah like tale of hard luck and bad circumstances on the Oregon trail–“The Gal Who Got Rattled”. In this one, Grainger Hines is one hell of a good shot and a super stoic cowboy. Zoe Kazan plays against type as a meek and mild Christian farm maid, and Bill Heck is the good ole wagoneer who’s looking to settle down. Then in “Meal Ticket,” the tale of a downtrodden entertainment manager travels through the snow with his armless legless actor protege to ever more dwindling audiences through the West. Here, Liam Neeson’s Impresario quickly turns from sympathetic to unsympathetic in regards to his armless legless charge. Finally, to a good ole fashioned bank robbery gone wrong “Near Algodones.” James Franco and Stephen Root duke it out to hilarious results.
“…the cinematography is absolutely beautiful…and should be admired on the big screen…”
The thing that is wonderful about The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is that it will be more readily available to larger audience thanks to it’s Netflix distribution deal. This can also be seen as detrimental because the cinematography is absolutely beautiful, particularly in “All Gold Canyon” which I will just refer to as the Tom Waits segment, and should be admired on the big screen. However, there will be a simultaneous theatrical run of the film when it is released. I hope people take heed and go see it in the theater because it’s an entirely different experience. However, if you don’t want to or can’t for whatever reason, watch it on Netflix. It’s yet another piece of Coen Brothers’ gold that just makes me curious about what kind of magic they’re going to make next.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs Written and Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Starring Tom Waits, Tim Blake Nelson, Liam Neeson, James Franco, David Krumholtz, Clancy Brown, Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck, Stephen Root, Tyne Daly, Saul Rubinek, Chelcie Ross, etc. etc. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs screened at the 2018 New York Film Festival.
10 out of 10 Stars