Letterboxd Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
Joel and Ethan Coen are at it again. Pastoral splendor dripping from their oil painting visual compositions, actors insatiably sinking teeth into fascinating off-kilter or understated character studies, themes of nihilistic fatalism, and contradictions of traditional beauty with cruel pragmatism. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a loaded six-shooter of a Western anthology, with cowboy folk tales ranging from oddly violent cartoon musical to a claustrophobic denouement given in ten pages of philosophical dialogue. Some of it works beautifully. Some of it just kinda works. Never is it boring, and every bit contains that patented Coen fascination with storytelling through texture. Through atmosphere.
All six segments of the film possess their own unique textures, each of which corresponds to the subgenre or formula the Coens are exploring. In essence, this film is an opportunity to see the Coens play around, tasting different trappings of the Western to find the ones that resonate with them. Typically if you come across an anthology movie, each segment is written and directed by different folks, whereas this one is written and directed by the same two. So it functions not just as a sampler platter of Western flavors but also a taste of the different sensibilities of the brothers over their storied career. Viewed from that angle, it's plenty of fun, even if it's a little jarring to mix some of these flavors together.
The film's differently styled tales are illustrations of the different points of view, different lenses through which people try to live life and coexist, just as each is also a different genre in which the West has been traditionally depicted. When saddled with another man's poker hand, Buster himself declines to play it, only to be told "You seen 'em, you play 'em," and that is certainly a Coen-patented coda about fate, and about empathy, and about the human condition. Once we have the benefit of a wide-angle view of our circumstances and those of the folks around us, we might not like what we see, but it's too late. You seen 'em, you play 'em. With that in mind, each story seems to come with a lesson in differing perspectives. Sometimes this works really well, other times it feels buried under the extremes the film sometimes finds in a fever pitch, be they extremely silly, extremely horrific, or extremely maudlin. With so little time on each story, and with the thematic connection so loose, the depth of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs will not be found by many impulse Netflix viewers looking for The Big Lebowski Goes West, but that's totally fine. It's still really fun to watch.
The tone flutters swiftly from macabre singalong cartoon "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," the titular segment that Netflix chose for their banner ads, to a more traditional Coen criminal misadventure "Near Algodones," which feels like an ancestral Raising Arizona, and before you know it you're having fun. That segment ends with something of a gut-punch that leads into the latter four segments that all reach a little further toward the melancholy or outright despair of more latter-day Coen exhibitions. While "Meal Ticket" is haunting and heartbreaking in its gothic dignity, there's visceral relief to be had from the Tom Waits-starring "All Gold Canyon," what feels like an intimate aside in a Zen garden with one of those classic supporting characters, the grizzled and half-mad prospector. Waits is terrific, having been born to play that particular archetype, and the story itself is surprisingly engaging despite having the slightest of plots and most lingering eye-candy photography of any segment.
Story number five, "The Gal Who Got Rattled," has the most meat on its bones of any. It's not nearly as flashy, bizarre, or memorable as "Scruggs" or the others. Largely, it's the Coens doing a straightforward Western focused on Zoe Kazan's expressive performance as a frontier woman forced into increasingly uncertain situations on the trail to Oregon. It's the closest that Buster Scruggs comes to the rich realism the Coens breathed into True Grit, only occasionally flourishing the tale with a bit of their dramatic irony and deadpan oddities. In the final segment, "The Mortal Remains," a stagecoach full of seemingly proverbial passengers discuss the great truth of human existence that helps to sow up The Ballad of Buster Scruggs in a soulful, albeit meandering, sort of way. I've watched this film a few times now (because, spoilers, I really dig it), but for the life of me I'm not sure how we get from Tim Blake Nelson's goofy Roy Rogers rendition of "Cool Water" to the otherworldly purgatory of endless prairie, tight seating arrangements, and arguments on the duality of man that come packaged with Brendan Gleeson's mournful a cappella of "The Unfortunate Lad." The path was a winding one, and we bumped over many errant rocks along the way (*cough*James Franco's stoner smirk*cough*), but ultimately the ride was a pleasurable one.
Is this the new pinnacle of Coen brothers work? Well, no, but it's absolutely gorgeous. Is it daring or transformative in some way that sets it apart? Not really, unless you count the fact that the Coens made it with Netflix and released it directly onto the streaming service. That and the misnomers about Buster Scruggs being a series pitch originally, and you have a decent argument that the anthology structure was used to better deliver the film in bite-sized, more easily stream-able chunks on purpose. But beyond that, it's just a really reliable, resonant, funny, artsy-fartsy kind of Coen film, with a little something for everyone. If you feel you "get" the Coens, or at least you find all of their different tricks amusing, watch this one! It's a charming medley of all those tricks, with a little less depth, but a lot of welcome panache.