The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

Genre: Western Running Time: 2 hrs. 13 min.

Release Date: November 9th, 2018 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen Actors: Tim Blake Nelson, Clancy Brown, James Franco, Stephen Root, Liam Neeson, Harry Melling, Tom Waits, Bill Heck, Zoe Kazan, Grainger Hines, Jefferson Mays, Brendan Gleeson, Saul Rubinek

 


 

B

uster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) strums his guitar and sings a song, astride his white horse, lonesomely journeying through the desert. The start of this Coen Brothers film looks like a traditional Western at first glance, but the camerawork betrays an intrusive, modern style; not only does Scruggs look into the camera to narrate, but the lens also swishes back and forth with jarring rapidity, while also shifting to peer out from within the guitar. When Scruggs, dubbed “The Misanthrope” on his wanted poster, saunters into a dusty cantina, maintaining a cheery disposition – which is yet another inauthentic component – a gunfight ensues. Curiously, even this staple of the Western genre (quick-draw shootouts) bears little resemblance to traditional ventures.

It’s obvious within the first few seconds that “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” isn’t really trying to be a Western. Instead, it possesses the biting sarcasm frequently found in the Coens’ works; this project is much more a spoof of the American Frontier than an earnest recreation of anything from the early days of cinema. Sadly, even the humor is lacking, considering that it’s derived chiefly from bloody violence, which is augmented by unconvincing computer graphics – followed by additional CG for a total fantasy sequence (yet another element unfamiliar to the Western formula).

This production is an anthology, which means that after Buster Scruggs’ introduction, featuring a few brief duels, the narrative transitions back to a shot of the book from which these stories originated (like a classic Disney cartoon), showing color plates with quotes for the upcoming episode. “Near Algodones” stars James Franco as an unnamed cowboy, who robs a bank in New Mexico, only to be foiled by the crazy old teller (Stephen Root), blabbering a virtually incoherent series of sentences, and shielded from gunfire by armor crafted from pots and pans. This segment also features signature ingredients of the Western blueprint, though it too is made less appealing by graphic violence and unsympathetic characters. The humor of repeated hanging attempts can’t stop the story from remaining abrupt and unsatisfying, as if lacking anything beyond a mere punchline.

“Meal Ticket” changes the scenery and colors – if only for a moment, thanks to some greenery and cold weather – as it centers on an armless, legless, traveling thespian orator (Harry Melling), managed by a mostly silent impresario (Liam Neeson). “All Gold Canyon” (again featuring brighter colors) tells the tale of a prospector (Tom Waits) monotonously digging and sifting and marking the land in his quest for precious metals. In “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” Alice (Zoe Kazan) heads to Oregon to be married, though she’s preoccupied by her brother’s worsening cough, his barking dog, and a matter of missing money. Fortunately, the man in charge of the wagon train, Mr. Knapp (Bill Heck), devises a few solutions to Alice’s predicaments – including a touch of romance. The final short, “The Mortal Remains,” sees a group of disparate passengers on a stagecoach heading to Fort Morgan, discussing the differences and qualities of humankind and love, curiously encompassing the viewpoints of an Englishman (Jonjo O’Neill), an Irishman (Brendan Gleeson), a Frenchman (Saul Rubinek), a weathered old trapper (Chelcie Ross), and a refined, elderly woman (Tyne Daly).

With six distinct stories composing the film, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” covers practically every basic Western theme and scenario (and then some), though its approach is far from conforming to classic or contemporary standards of the genre. It’s alternately funny, adventurous, and morbid, though it doesn’t excel in any particular aspect. And its insistence on including arrows to the throat, bullets to the head, tomahawks to torsos, and sudden scalpings keeps the tone routinely dark.

Problematically, some of the fables are better than others, which means that the weaker links drag down the impact of the more impressive chapters; correspondingly, several scenes within each premise outshine the stories as a whole, making them appear poorly paced or improperly detailed (and, at worst, unnecessary altogether). Inexplicably, the quirky, comical factors of the opening yarn never fully return, failing to circle back around to give the film the expected cohesiveness often found in anthology productions. Here, the conclusion is one of the lowest points, leaving viewers without even the resoluteness of the earlier vignettes.

– Mike Massie

  • 4/10