Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

The latest feature from the Coen Brothers, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an anthology film presenting a series of Western tales. It is dark, full of black humour, and beautifully shot, presenting all the hallmarks that fans of the brothers’ films have come to expect over the years. As with any new film from directors with long and varied careers, fans are somewhat divided as to whether the new film is a return to form, among their best, or a minor entry in their filmography. The truth lies somewhere in between: Buster Scruggs is consistently engaging, funny and bleak at turns, but at the same time feels slight, rarely truly achieving the characterization and thematic depth that the brothers are capable of.

Some of this is surely due to my own perception of its anthology structure. Anthology films are tricky things. By their very nature as a collection of shorter pieces—united by some common feature, usually thematic, but also often a shared genre or setting—they offer briefer and more focused explorations than a conventional feature narrative. When they work, it is usually on the strength of the whole, on how they function as a unit. This offers creators an opportunity to explore variations on a theme, but it can also give the sensation of skipping along a surface, touching a number of related points, but never striking as deep or effectively as they might.

There is also always the risk that a weak episode can bring the whole thing down. Fortunately, none of the episodes in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, taken on its own, is a complete dud. Each of the six vignettes has its merits, but only a couple have a lasting impact. Part of this is due to the fact that all of Buster Scruggs shares the same writers, directors, and cinematographer: there is a unity of visual and thematic content that serves the film well (and leads me to agree with the brothers themselves that this is meant to be seen as a single film, and not a television series or mini-series). Yet, it is in its tonal unevenness and the way that the brevity of the anthology format magnifies some of the Coen’s more unpleasant tendencies that it does not rank among their very best.

The film opens with a clothbound book entitled “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; and Other Tales of the American Frontier —  with color plates.” A hand turns the pages, and each “chapter” of the film is introduced with its title and a colour plate teasing some image to come. It’s a good use of the literary conceit, capturing some of the pleasure of digging into an old book and wondering where the pictures will come into the story. It also places what is to come into context: this isn’t a realistic portrait of the Old West (the entire concept being a kind of mythic construct for the most part).

Rather, it is the “American Frontier” as seen through the eyes of those who helped create the myth. It’s exaggerated and burlesque. Indigenous inhabitants of the West are present only in their role as something to be feared and fought; women, when portrayed at all, are virginal, weak, and probably naive; men are crude and dirty, and/or prone to violence. It’s a heightened version of the stereotypes and tropes that populate old stories and films.

But the Coens are also playing with these tropes for a contemporary audience, and offering their own dark take on it. Take the titular opening tale, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) is a variation on the singing cowboy (a trope the Coens also utilized to different effect in Hail, Caesar!). A genteel and white bedecked cowboy, Scruggs contrasts his entertaining and friendly demeanour with outbursts of violence as a sharpshooter who won’t take any “contradiction.” The songs are the highlight of this sequence, particularly the rousing and upbeat “Surly Joe,” sung in tribute to a felled poker opponent. The “Buster Scruggs” sequence seems to set up a darkly comic, Looney Tunes-esque treatment of the West (one almost expected Yosemite Sam to show up).

However, later stories never sustain the opening’s tonal zaniness (or literal cartoonishness, as the spirit of a vanquished character literally ascends to heaven with wings and harp). Subsequent episodes go to very dark places, critiquing the very nature of entertainment as an impresario (Liam Neeson) trucks a legless, armless artist named Harrison (Harry Melling) around crowds with diminishing returns in “Meal Ticket” or a young woman (Zoe Kazan) travelling with her brother gives up hope too quickly when faced with danger in “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” These episodes attempt to generate real pathos, but one cannot help but think that they are also portraits of weakness that when placed after the opening ballad, come across as meaner than they might otherwise.

And while an entire film that sustained the cartoonishness of “Buster Scruggs” might have been an interesting one, it makes one question some of the choices in the film as presented: it’s as if Raising Arizona and No Country for Old Men were placed side by side in the space of two-hours.

Now, both of those films are both important parts of the Coens’ sensibility, and both great films in my estimation. The Coens have never shied away from the darkly ironic: innocence is no guarantee of safety in their world, nor an excuse for failure. Explored in a larger body of work, it raises important questions about the moral compass of the world and how we might confront evil. For my tastes, none of their films achieves that balance of darkly comic and the contemplation of deeper meaning as well as A Serious Man, but it was rooted in a very specific time and place, leaned on their biographical experiences, and utilized an ancient framework of Judaism and philosophy to do so.

Buster Scruggs has moments when it comes close to that brilliance. “Near Algodones” is the most directly ironic tale, about a thief (James Franco) who finds himself in the position of being hung twice. It neatly suggests that we cannot outrun death, no matter what. In “All Gold Canyon,” (not an original by the Coens but adapted from a story by Jack London) a prospector played by Tom Waits finds his fate and fortune hinging on chance and turnabout. And the final chapter, “The Mortal Remains,” features some fine character work as two “reapers” (Brendan Gleeson and Jonjo O’Neill) in a stagecoach converse with three other passengers as to the nature of their work and of humanity. The role of death and the relationship between fate and what we’ve earned is explored, summing up the entire anthology and clarifying the theme of death and unearned fates as the unifying thread.

My criticism of the film is in proportion to the esteem that I hold the Coen Brothers’ work. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is certainly worth checking out for those who are fans of the brothers’ other films, but it might magnify the criticisms that they have disdain for some of their characters or are excessively nihilistic. While more sustained explorations of even more odious characters help me to appreciate the artistry more (as in Inside Llewyn Davis), the anthology format leaves me less satisfied. The whole never emerges as more than the sum of its parts. Perhaps multiple viewings will elucidate the film more, but while I appreciated its artistry, the tonal shifts and lack of sustained interest in any character taken as an individual mutes my appreciation of the film. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is another solid entry in the Coen brothers’ filmography, but in trying to muster some kind of summation of their collective thematic and formal interests, it’s perhaps a case of more is less.

7 out of 10

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018, USA)

Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen; starring Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Harry Melling, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Brendan Gleeson, Jonjo O’Neill, Tyne Daly.