Film Review – The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
Netflix is making a splash by snagging The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the latest Western from Joel and Ethan Cohen. It’s clear that Netflix is going for big time awards recognition as they continue to collaborate with some of our greatest filmmakers. But unfortunately for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, it might not receive the praise that the streaming giant hoped for…at least in my opinion.
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed By: Joel and Ethan Coen
Written By: Joel and Ethan Coen
In The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Coens tackle the Old West through six different stories tied together by similar themes, all of which show life in different and distinct ways.
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Although reports first indicated that The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was originally planned to become a television series, that simply was not the case. The Coens initially went to Annapurna with the project and then later sold the distribution rights to Netflix due to their souring view of Hollywood as a whole.
They’re getting a bit tired of the amount of established franchises ruling Hollywood, noting that it is “pretty much the business of the studios now.”
But even so, the Coens weren’t 100% about their film getting most of its play on television rather than the big screen. They’ve admitted that they’ve used screeners in recent years rather than going out to the theater themselves. But still, Joel Coen noted that the amount of hours spent on the finer details of a film are appreciated “in a different way on a big screen.”
It’s a bit unnerving that two of our finest directors are having trouble finding proper distribution for their films. Personally, nuggets of information like this suggest that the current system is broken for creators. But then again, I’m still excited that we get another film from the Coens, no matter where I see it. I imagine many other film fanatics are having this same inner conflict.
I Love a Good Coens’ Western
No one makes movies quite like the Coens. Are there some films that outpace the Coens’ work? Sure, although I’d fight for No Country for Old Men against 99.9999% of other films any day of the week. The Coens operate on such a heightened level, one that is heavily steeped in allusions to influential books and also to film history. They also have incredible wit with a strong sense of darkness to it, making most of their films undeniable pleasures.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs doesn’t exactly cover new ground for the Coens; themes of death and meaning are prevalent in essentially all of their films along with a strong sense of cynicism. It certainly does deepen those themes, however, through very different means of storytelling. The titular short The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is outrageously hilarious, showcasing Tim Blake Nelson and all of his unconventional charm. But Meal Ticket, another short within the film, is one of the more depressing pieces of cinema that you’ll ever watch. (Seriously, it’s a bummer.) Although the sheen wears off about halfway through the film, I truly admire the Coens’ varied approach to this tale as they use their idiosyncratic touch to populate these stories with wonderful oddities.
We All Need More Tim Blake Nelson
My favorite short within The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is, in fact, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. I’ll admit that it’s an odd choice. Looking at these shorts as a whole, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs certainly sticks out among the crowd as a blatantly different (and odd) experience. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s goddamn hilarious.
Nelson is a favorite for the Coens; he’s a favorite of mine, too. Every time the Coens use him, it makes me hope that he’ll get more high-profile roles. He’s never hurting for work (he has 85 acting credits to his name on IMDb) but he deserves to be more than just a character actor that pops up in a supporting role.
Better yet, can we get a Buster Scruggs spin-off movie? Granted, it would be a bit difficult to do so considering what transpires during his story in this particular film but Nelson is so magnetic. I need more…for my sanity.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a Bit Self-Indulgent (Scratch That, VERY Self-Indulgent)
About midway through the fourth short, All Gold Canyon, I began to grow a bit tired of the entire adventure, as all the life and intrigue began to slowly dissipate from the screen as the film settled into a pace that made me quite sleepy after a while. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs does a wonderful job of doing what it advertised: showing life in the Old West through six different perspectives. The problem is that these ever-present themes of death and pointlessness to living cease to be engaging, most notably in The Gal Who Was Rattled and The Mortal Remains. The focus shifts from engaging atmosphere and pathos to exercises in overly succinct or overly lengthy dialogue, neither of which is very enthralling.
You can feel the Coens testing themselves as writers and directors in these two shorts; they constrained themselves when they didn’t have to do so. Though admirable, it simply doesn’t do it for me as the viewer, so much so that I don’t see myself returning to this film in totality on my own accord. It’s wonderfully crafted in parts, but the issues with the construction of some of these six stories will only lead me to rewatch a handful of these shorts.
A fascinating concept that is better in theory than it was in execution, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs isn’t among the worst that the Coens have offered in their illustrious career together, but it’s in the tier right above where you’d find movies like The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty.
There are some AMAZING moments in this anthology western that make it worth revisiting in pieces, but I think one sitting of the entire film is all I’ll ever need.
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*Quotations via the LA Times