The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: Another Coen Classic

Tim Blake Nelson is Buster Scruggs in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a film by Joel and Ethan Coen. Courtesy of Netflix

Taking us back to the days of the Old West, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is another classic from the minds of the Coen Brothers.

The Western is one of the oldest genres in the book but it always makes for interesting material.  Even when we think that every possible scenario has been exhausted, someone comes about with a fresh take.  This is what the Coens do and they do it so well, I must say.  The brothers give us six individual narratives that have nothing to do with each other.  If it weren’t for the book tying them all together with illustrations, this film may as well be considered a short block of Western narratives.

The film starts out with Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) singing on horseback and breaking the fourth wall.  My initial thought was that we have the potential for a solid musical western comedy from the Coen Brothers.  It was a solid western comedy, albeit dark, but not quite the musical that I quickly envisioned.  Scruggs’ story is just one of them.  The singer is also a wanted outlaw and one of the best shooters in the west if I must say.

The second story, Near Algones, focuses on a cowboy (James Franco) robbing a bank.  Anything that can go wrong for the cowboy certainly does.  Even though he appropriately meets his fate, it’s not without a comedy of errors along the way.  I know that there are people that will be hesitant to watch because of Franco’s casting.  I don’t blame you at all for holding to this opinion.  Because his character doesn’t much much screen time, they could have surely considered recasting the role once things broke in January 2018.

The third story, Meal Ticket, features an impresario (Liam Neeson) and an artist (Harry Melling).  Because they are traveling performances, there are several montages of repeated dialogue.  This one gets sad towards the end but a funny moment comes with the impresario makes out with a prostitute but not before he makes sure to turn the artist in a different direction.  Also, I’m pretty sure that Harry Melling has all of his limbs rather than no arms and no legs like his character.  Were no disabled characters available for the role?  Or were they not even considered?

The fourth story, All Gold Canyon, features a gold prospector (Tom Waits) on the search.  The way that Waits plays him almost reminds me of Bruce Dern in a way.  You can’t help but feel for him as he’s out in the middle of G-d knows where trying to get rich from finding gold. Where are you, Mr. Pocket?!?

The fifth story is The Gal Who Got Rattled.  I wanted this one to end quite differently and you’ll know why when you do see the film.  Anyway, Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) is traveling the Oregon Trail with her brother, Gilbert (Jefferson Mays).  Things don’t end well for Gilbert but that’s life on the trail.  The thing I love about this particular short is that it brings us THE OREGON TRAIL on the big screen.  If this is as close as I’ll get to the big screen adaptation of everybody’s favorite computer game in school, I’ll take it.  Assisting with the wagon trail are Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines) and Billy Knapp (Bill Heck).  Yes, there is a cute dog who steals the show!  Spin-off please?

The sixth and final story, The Mortal Remains, features quite a bit of humor in the ride to Fort Morgan.  While we barely get to know a lady (Tyne Daly), it’s the trapper (Chelcie Ross) who steals the show.  His dialogue alone leads to non-stop laughter.

When I first heard that the Coen Brothers were making an anthology television series, I got very excited.  Two of the finest filmmakers would have the chance to show viewers what they can do with a long-form narrative.  As such, I was surprised to see The Ballad of Buster Scruggs announced earlier this summer to premiere during the fall festival circuit.  When I did see the film on a Monday afternoon following one of the worst weeks in recent history, I was pleasantly surprised but in a good way.  The only disappointment is that many viewers will watch on the small screen.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs works as well as it does because of a strong script from the Coen Brothers.  While some of the narratives in the film could easily work as an expanded feature, they do their jobs in this one.  While there are indeed some dark moments, there’s nothing wrong in finding some humor between the lines.

CAST:  Tyne Daly, James Franco, Brendan Gleeson, Bill Heck, Grainger Hines, Zoe Kazan, Harry Melling, Liam Neeson, Tim Blake Nelson, Jonjo O’Neill, Chelcie Ross, Saul Rubinek, Tom Waits, Clancy Brown, Jefferson Mays, Stephen Root, Willie Watson

Netflix will release The Ballad of Buster Scruggs in select theaters on November 8, 2018.  The film hits streaming video on November 16, 2018.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.