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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – Review

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs - Review
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs - Review
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs - Review


Release Date: 16 November 2018
Director: Ethan Coen - Joel Coen
Writer: Ethan Coen - Joel Coen [Screenplay] - Jack London - Stewart Edward White [Story]
Cast: Tim Blake Nelson - Willie Watson - Clancy Brown



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Posted December 6, 2018 by

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – Review

The Coen brothers’ ambitious western is an anthology of stories set in the old West featuring a variety of eccentric characters in ever-increasingly bizarre situations. As one would expect in such an anthology, some stories work better than others. We take a look at each segment and analyse what did, and didn’t, work.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs - Review

The titular story begins with Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) singing his way as he sojourns through different towns. Scruggs may be known as a great singer around these parts, but he’s also a sharp shooter. And with good reason – Scruggs can’t go two steps without finding someone who wants to kill him, or at least duel him. It doesn’t help that Scruggs is a bit too honest when speaking to his fellow man, nor is he above a spot of showmanship himself. But, one of these days, there’s going to be someone who comes along with a more devious streak than Scruggs. That day is about to come sooner than Scruggs realises.

As an opening tale, this one is nothing short of quirky. Aside from a few brief interludes of dialogue, that too with Scruggs speaking directly to the camera, most of the segment is related via the characters singing. Interestingly, this story is the only musical in the film.

Tim Blake Nelson makes for an excellent choice of protagonist. His on-screen presence and captivating performance are on point. He is incredibly personable, despite his somewhat abhorrent actions on screen. It makes for a solid start to the film.

“Near Algodones”

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs - Review

A cowboy (James Franco) stands before the bank he plans to rob. With not a soul in sight, the cowboy should have this in the bag. But he hasn’t counted on the wily teller (Stephen Root) who has been through his fare share of robberies and is well-prepared. Before the cowboy knows it, he’s being strung up, ready to be hanged. However, this is the Old West and there are unpredictable elements everywhere. The cowboy is about to get a new lease of life from very unlikely quarters.

The starkness of this segment, especially with regards to the lack of dialogue, is startling in comparison to the almost constant banter of the first story. It’s also a more traditional look at the Old West – cowboys and Indians, banks and posses, public hangings – the elements are all there. What makes this story interesting is how it plays with audiences’ expectations of where the narrative is headed. Without giving anything away, let’s just say this is not the ending one would hope for.

James Franco carries the tale as the cowboy and he does a good job. However, considering the recent controversies surrounding his behaviour, it is disturbing that well-known directors like the Coens continue to hire problematic actors.

There is also the issue of how Indians are portrayed in this segment – as mindless killing machines with no reason for their violence. It’s 2018 – surely we should be past this kind of portrayal?

“Meal Ticket”

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs - Review

The impresario (Liam Neeson) takes his charge, the artist (Harry Melling), from town to town, their performances making them a varying amount of money. The impresario is a man of few words, going about his duty and taking care of his ward as efficiently as possible. However, when the money begins to dry up, the impresario begins looking for other options. But what is he to do with the artist?

This is one of the more bizarre tales in this anthology, and looks at an oft-overlooked group of characters from the era – entertainers. If there’s one thing people have always needed, it is to be entertained. Of course, the mode of entertainment has changed from era to era, and in “Meal Ticket”, we see a particularly strange kind. The artist is an orator and though he has a mesmerising way of reciting texts, people queue up to see him mainly because he is something of an oddity – the artist has no limbs, hence the need for the impresario, who also acts as his carer.

I’m not entirely sure whether the Coen brothers were trying to make some kind of commentary about the treatment of people with disabilities, because it doesn’t quite come across here. The story appears to rely more on shock value than anything else. And one can’t help but wonder why they chose to digitise an able-bodied actor instead of hiring a disabled actor to begin with.

As a whole, this is one of the weaker stories in the anthology, not because of the actual narrative but because of the politics of how it is directed. Once again, this film seems to have the sensibilities of a bygone era, which is troubling in the current political climate.

“All Gold Canyon”

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs - Review

A lone man enters a stunning landscape with one purpose – prospecting. The prospector (Tom Waits) is looking for an ever-elusive pocket of gold and he will dig far and wide to find it. As he finds larger and larger nuggets of gold, he becomes convinced that he is about to find his pocket soon. But unknown to him, he is not as alone as he initially thought.

With only one character to focus on, the Coen brothers go all out to showcase the landscape, the inner workings of human beings, and the follies of pride and greed. This story is laden with sub-text, though I’m not certain whether all of it was intended. I saw it as a rumination about the relationship between man and nature, but by the end of the segment, it seemed to be more about the strength of man’s conviction, even in the face of extreme adversity. Or perhaps, this story is about corporations capitalising on the work of the little guy. Like I said, so much subtext!

The cinematography of this segment is stunning which makes the prospector’s frenetic digging that much more intolerable. One can appreciate the man’s labour but what is the cost to nature?

Tom Waits single-handedly carries this segment and he blows the part out of the water. His railing at his surroundings, at the yet-unfound pocket of gold, at the world in general, make for a believable protagonist.

This story could very well have been the opening of a feature-length film but, even on its own, it is one of the strongest in this film.

“The Gal Who Got Rattled”

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs - Review

Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) and her brother Gilbert (Jefferson Mays) are taking the caravan to Oregon. Gilbert believes he has a business opportunity there, and Alice is likely to be married to Gilbert’s future business partner. But the caravan is not an easy mode to travel on and Gilbert soon falls fatally ill. On her own, Alice finds herself in dire straits. Gilbert has left her with nothing but an annoying barking dog, and may even have exaggerated their opportunities in Oregon.

Seriously concerned, Alice turns to one of the caravan owners, Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), for advice. Knapp is impressed with the young woman but shares her worries for her future. As they get closer to Oregon, Knapp and Alice find their paths crossing more frequently and eventually they come to an agreement that might be mutually beneficial. But on one unlikely day when Gilbert’s dog distracts Alice, their worlds will be changed forever.

This is the longest of all the stories and is thus, more developed than the others. We get plenty of backstory for the main characters and their relationships with each other are given time to develop so the denouement is far more impactful.

Zoe Kazan turns in a good performance as the winsome Alice and her chemistry with Bill Heck powers the story. Heck plays the seasoned cowboy with aplomb, measuring his words and strutting about. Grainger Hines’ Mr Arthur has an important role in the story but is given surprisingly little to do up till the end. It would have been good to see how he and Knapp have become so close especially as Mr Arthur barely emits a grunt, forget full sentences.

Unfortunately, this story also falls into the savage Indian trope. Once is forgivable, but twice? I feel like the Coen brothers, in their rush to share the authentic Western film experience, have ended up making a film about the White Western experience instead. This is disappointing and completely took me out of the story, which had been so strong till the end.

“The Mortal Remains”

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs - Review

Five people sit uncomfortably in a stagecoach that won’t stop until it reaches its destination. The occupants of the carriage don’t all know each other, certainly the Trapper (Chelcie Ross), the Lady (Tyne Daly), and the Frenchman (Saul Rubinek) don’t, but the Englishman (Jonjo O’Neill) and the Irishman (Brendan Gleeson) work together as collectors of souls.

The occupants discuss their philosophies on life, which are very different from each other. Trapper believes everyone is the same, like ferrets, but confesses to being in a relationship with a woman whose language he doesn’t know. Despite this, he insists his approach to life is correct. The Lady believes people are divided into sinners and upright citizens, but her strict moral code crumbles as she reveals more about her estrangement from her husband. The Frenchman believes people’s actions are tied to their desires but fails to understand his compatriots’ compunctions.

Despite their disparate beliefs, by the time they reach their destination, the group have found similarities in their worldview and in each other. Now for the next step in their journey.

This story is the most fantastical of the anthology, but it takes a while for the viewer to realise what’s going on. There are subtle colouring techniques in this segment that give the game away, but they are so nuanced that it is easy to overlook.

However, more than the story, it is the characters that make this segment work. Their camaraderie, or lack thereof, is fascinating to watch. People are so often trapped by their beliefs and this tale shows us how and why that is.

This segment is a rumination on death and what ties us to each other. The story surmises that there is more to humanity than the things we cling to, and by the end, the characters are given enough evidence to agree with that.

Thematically, this final tale ties the film together. There are elements of each of the five preceding stories that are present in this one, though not in an obvious fashion. It is a good ending to the film but is just a bit too disparate, which makes the experience of watching it jarring. I’m not sure if this story properly belongs in this film or not. It’s in the film, and there’s no changing that, but it feels crowbarred in and not at all organic.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is definitely a film to be experienced but there are issues with it that are hard to ignore. The lack of prominent people of colour in a film made in 2018 is unforgiveable, especially as the only people of colour are tropes that should have died out years ago. For a film that was released so close to the American Thanksgiving, it is deeply insensitive to the plight of Native Americans.

There are also far too few female characters and the only ones with substantial screen-time are Alice Longabaugh and the Lady. This is beyond comprehension – weren’t there women in the Old West?

Can the film be enjoyed despite these missteps? There are plenty of strong moments in this film and it is easy to get caught up in the majesty of the visuals. But, in the end, this film fails to subvert Western genre tropes, or give audiences stories that haven’t already been told before. Almost every story has a predictable ending, and though that might be fine for some viewers, in 2018, we expect more from writers and directors as celebrated as the Coen brothers.


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Louis Skye
Freelance Contributor

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