Movie Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

I’m a self-confessed Coen Bros. fan. Their kind of storytelling almost always entertains me, mainly because it’s just a bit off from the typical movie you’ll get anywhere else. They embrace the absurd, but not to the extent that you give up on it. It’s more like (for me) that I never know what sort of characters and plots I’ll meet in their films. Heroes might not be that heroic, and they might turn out to be cowards. Villains can do things that genuinely surprise you.

Some of my favorite movies are Coen Bros. affairs. O Brother Where Art Thou is fantastic. True Grit, No Country for Old Men, Big Lebowski, and Miller’s Crossing are all home runs, and I personally love Hudsucker Proxy and Intolerable Cruelty.

This is just to say that when I see a new Coen Bros. movie come out, I’m naturally inclined to watch it soon. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, just out on Netflix a week or two ago, is a bit of a departure for them. Instead of one movie, it’s a series of 6 short films, all of them western themed. Think of it more as an adaptation of a short story collection, and it makes more sense. I’m going to run down my response to each of them in the order they appear in the film.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is classic quirky Coens. A deadly gunslinger who happens to look like a carefree, whistling goof, comes into town. He talks to the camera and sings all the time. It’s quite violent, and completely absurd. It left me wondering what would be coming next, but bemused, at least.

Near Algodones is really well done, but ultimately not as memorable for me. It tells the story of a bank robber and the series of misfortunes that befall him. I enjoyed it well enough, but it didn’t stay with me the same as some of the other tales did.

Meal Ticket was totally brutal. It’s the story of a man who drives a one-cart circus around from town to town. He’s employed a single armless, legless man who happens to give great speeches. But times are clearly tough, and it’s debatable if the operation will stay afloat. This is not a story that will leave you very optimistic about the love of mankind.

All Gold Canyon is a beautifully shot film. The story of a gold digger who’s hoping to strike it rich in a place it seems no man has stepped foot in before. But he’s old, and there’s a chance he might just die before he ever finds anything. I liked this one, though it felt a tad . . . gimmicky. Still fantastic to look at.

The Gal Who Got Rattled was one I really loved, and I’m not entirely sure why. The story of a woman riding west with her brother to seek a possible marriage in California. Except (naturally) things don’t quite go according to  plan. I think I liked this one so much because of how much it got me to invest in the main characters, and their fate is one that made me keep thinking about it long after the movie was over.

The Mortal Remains is the tale of a group of people in a stagecoach on their way to an unknown destination. Full of classic Coen dialogue, though perhaps a bit heavy on the symbolism. A sort of film that after you watch it, you wonder what it meant, and you try to parse it out, even if it did feel like it tried a bit too hard, in the end.

Overall, I gave the movie a 9/10. I enjoyed myself the entire time watching it. It was thought provoking and entertaining, which isn’t something you get every day. I also really liked the general form of the movie, with each sequence introduced by a colored illustration from a book, along with a subtitle that made you wonder what was in store. Some of those intros turned out to be key to really understanding what was happening.

It’s a violent, bloody film, which is the one reason it’s rated R. No real language or sex–but expect to see people die and be harmed in sometimes inventive ways.

A sign of how strong the films are individually is how wide a range of opinions there are on which are the best and worst of the lot. I personally would rank them:

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

But just going through those, it was very difficult to make some decisions. They’re each strong in their own way. 


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