The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
Written & Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
Our movie opens on a simple song of the Old West warbled by the ever cheerful Buster Scruggs. Scruggs is an outlaw in a very peculiar vein, notorious and feared while exuding a Will Rogers type persona. This is one of six short stories told over the course of the movie, using the framing device of a book being acted out for the audience. Other stories focus on a bank robber experiencing a series of bad luck deals, traveling entertainers coming to the end of the line, a lone prospector’s discovery of the motherlode, a young woman in a wagon train headed westward for marriage, and a spooky stagecoach ride to Fort Morgan.
Originally conceived as an original series for Netflix, the Coen Brothers decided to keep the stories short and make an anthology film. This structure is one that has very mixed results in cinema, but in the hands of the Coens, you can be reasonably sure the result will be one of particularly high quality. That doesn’t mean the film succeeds in avoiding many of the pitfalls anthologies inherently come with. There are many drastic tonal shifts between stories and how audiences react to that divergence will vary depending on your mindset.
The first two stories, the title tale and “Near Algodones” both employ farce and slapstick akin to O Brother Where Art Thou or Hail, Caesar. When we at “Meal Ticket” the tone shifts with minimalist dialogue and much bleaker look at the Old West and the stakes to survive in such an environment. “All Gold Canyon” and “The Gal Who Got Rattled” live in a middle space where violence is present but the window dressing feels light and old-fashioned. The final tale “The Mortal Remains” is the most fantastical and dialogue heavy of the pieces and reminded me of the atmosphere evoked in The Hudsucker Proxy.
Because each story varies in runtime, this leads to many not possessing the time to develop their characters and invest us in their perils. The first two shorts run so quick that they come off as comedic skits rather than fully developed short movies. I sensed that the Coens’ reticence to make this a series was due in part to so many of these scripts in development not having much meat on their bones. Because of the wildly varying tones and lengths, my favorite stories and yours are likely not to be the same. I found “Meal Ticket” to be my favorite of the bunch because of how minimal the storytelling was. Most of the dialogue comes from monologues and stories memorized by the traveling performer at the center of the tale. However, the meaning behind his performances changes as we wordlessly see the relationship between his manager and himself develop over time. It is also the most cynical and dark of the six, so that appeals to me the most.
This will likely not be remembered in the top tier of Coen Brothers’ films, but even a lesser cinematic work from the duo is better than most films playing at a theater at any given time. Scruggs is great for a chuckle or two and has enough to keep the viewer watching. If you get bored with one story, it won’t be long until it is over and another has begun. If anything the inclusion of this movie does a lot to increase the prestige of Netflix’s original programming and hopefully leads to even better first-run features to the platform.