Review: ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ Sings an Homage to the Tall Tales of the West

The Coen Brothers are among the greatest storytellers in American cinema. Since the 1980s, they seemed to understand how to bring the dark side of the American dream into visual storytelling. Murder, crime, and morbid humor have informed their style for decades. While there have been some films that missed the mark from time-to-time, you would be hardpressed to find a more consistently great duo in cinema history. Now, the Coen’s teamed up with Netflix to release “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” an anthology story about the old West. In this exercise, they have not created the most iconic film of their career, but bring a unique bend to the American Western in the process.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is told in six parts, each a chapter of the Western storybook. With different actors bringing each story to life, they embrace various aspects of the old west in beautiful and thrilling stories. The Coens cover tall tales, a minimalist story of man versus nature versus man, and even a tale of the afterlife. Yet there’s an unmistakable specter of death hanging over the story, one thinly veiled as death.

The film features some killer performances that help to bring the world to life in vivid detail. Tom Waits, the longtime singer/actor brings one of the very best performances of his career. The veteran brings his trademark drawl and gruff personality into a brilliantly paced segment of the film. Every moment matters that we spend with Waits, as each moment signifies the lifelong pursuit of greatness for the man.

Also thrilling to see in his element is Tim Blake Nelson as the titular Buster Scruggs. The hammy, ballad singing, fourth-wall breaking Scruggs brings together the brutality of the West with the comedy of a tall tale. If the story were placed next to Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan, it would fit in the American folklore canon. It is Nelson’s howdy-doody performance that sells “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings.” The song fits perfectly into the assembly and brings a stark truth to life about the American West: death lurked at every corner, even for the best of them.

The best piece of narrative storytelling likely goes to “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” featuring Zoe Kazan. Kazan stars in the story as a young woman who follows her brother to Oregon. However, after her brother’s death, she finds herself in a predicament. Billy Heck co-stars as Billy Knapp, and appears Grainger Hines as Mr. Arthur. Much of the story comes in slow bits, building to an interesting and tension-driven conclusion. Yet the Coen’s play the story straight, letting the tragic flaws of the characters bring them to their doom.

Equal parts morality play and travelogue, the final story “The Mortal Remains” does not attempt to hide its darker side. None of the stories have a character quite like Jonjo O’Neill‘s devilish Thigpen, who pokes and prods all the right places. O’Neill’s partner is Brenden Gleeson, who seems perfectly content delivering as an overqualified side-character for the film. The combo works well against the trio of Tyne DailySaul Rubinek, and Chelcie Ross. Rubinek might be the secret standout of the story, and Styx-esque tale ends the film on a strong note.

Meanwhile, aspects of the other two stories, “Near Algodones” and “Meal Ticket” often do not work. “Near Algodones” is funny when Stephen Root shows up, but his time is short lived. Instead, we get a mostly silent James Franco who seems like he has no regard for the life he’s led. There’s not much to grip to in this story. Meanwhile “Meal Ticket,” starring Liam Neeson and Harry Melling, tries an interesting bit of storytelling that doesn’t altogether work. The parable of an artist or intellectual with nothing to say, other than to recycle other people’s words, is an interesting concept. Potentially replacing Neeson with someone lesser known could have helped this one stand out. However, a combination of expectations and a longer run time made this one fizzle out quickly.

Some elements transcend a single story and show some real talent. Bruno Delbonnel kills the cinematography of this film. The 5-time Oscar nominee (for shooting Inside Llewyn Davis, and Amélie) captures the West in all of its elements. The white of the snow-covered hills of the mountains shows beautiful purity juxtaposed with violence. The sprawling vistas of the West live up to the grandiosity of the environment. Yet when we move to confined spaces, Delbonnel makes the world feel claustrophobic. Even the segregation of the campfires works as he utilizes the natural lighting to create invisible borders. Delbonnel stands out for his special and specific work.

Not far behind in terms of brilliance is the Coen’s go-to composer, Carter Burwell. The world-class composer brings together varying themes playing on the history of film, and storytelling in the old west. He fills the space with his work, making the screen feel crowded even as a single character inhabits the screen. David Rawlings & Gillian Welch write excellent ballads with “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings,” “Little Joe The Wrangler (Surly Joe),” and “Cool Water,” all of which fit nicely with Burwell’s other showcase moments. Together, Burwell, Welch, and Rawlings craft an excellent element that adds to many moments of the film.

Looking over The Ballad of Buster Scruggseach viewer may find some stories more compelling and meaningful than others. The overall accomplishment represents another win for the best filmmaking duo in recent memory. Even the Coen’s tenth best work is still superior to most filmmakers best stuff. The placement on Netflix is a nearly perfect fit, allowing audiences to skip around if they wish. Another strong screenplay, with a well-made film and awesome actors, makes Buster Scruggs a fun ride worthy of inclusion into the American Western canon.

GRADE: (★)

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