Two things to set the stage for this review: 1) I have now seen The Ballad of Buster Scruggs twice, for whatever benefit that has on this piece, if any, and 2) I’m writing it as a follow up to my previous review of Hail Caesar! – a film that I basically loathed. That film established my new Coens rule of thumb: “If it stars George Clooney, the likelihood it’ll be bad increases ten-fold”.
Luckily, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs does not star the celebrated actor/director; as a matter of fact, its cast is comprised of a lot talent that were strangers to Coen films at this point: James Franco, Zoe Kazan, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Brendan Gleeson, along with others. Only Tim Blake Nelson, Stephen Root, David Krumholtz and Clancy Brown immediately strike me as returning alum. But this large and studded cast come together for the Coens first crack at the anthology format. Interestingly enough, this was originally set to be a six-part streaming series when Netflix first picked it up, with stories that were written throughout their careers – thus giving way to some variability in tone and outlook – but as the story goes, Joel and Ethan realized they didn’t know how to really make television, so instead opted to turn it into a two-hour plus collection of shorts. It was a fruitful decision, if only because it’s hard to imagine some of these tales taking center stage without grating on the viewer. There’s power in brevity sometimes, and a good bit of Buster Scruggs benefits from it.
All too often, we have it set in our head what the format of an anthology looks like, and much of that is set into place by comics like Tales from the Crypt and Tales of the Mysterious Traveler, where an omniscient, fourth-wall breaking host guides a viewer through various morality plays. And at first, it appears that might be where The Ballad of Buster Scruggs might be headed. Tim Blake Nelson plays the typical white-hat singing cowboy, who addresses the audience directly, and get himself into and out of scraps with a breeze and an eagle-eye trigger finger. It almost seems like every couple of minutes he might just say “this reminds me of a story I once heard…”, but it never actually comes. And the end twist is Coens as their most absurdist.
What unfolds varies in quality as much as it does in content, but it allows the pair the ability to flex their genre muscles a bit, playing with a number of pastiches that hallmark the Western as a whole: the Gene Autry-like title character, James Franco as a bankrobber who catches the best break of his life only to fall back in the arms of irony, Liam Neeson and Harry Melling as a pair of traveling side-show artists looking to survive town after town, Tom Waits doing a solo run as a gold prospector with mostly only nature to sound off of, Zoe Kazan as a part of a wagon caravan on the Oregon Trail who fields an unexpected proposal, and lastly a carriage full of travelers, played Stagecoach-style, headed to what looks like their final stopping point.
Not only do the brothers get a chance to play with almost every conceivable angle of the Western, but they also shift tonally at the drop of the hat. With the A Serious Man-esque “Near Algodones” sitting so closely to the darker than dark “Meal Ticket,” only to be followed by one of the most hopeful pieces of their career in “All Gold Canyon,” the Coens, ever the masters of mood, effortlessly duck and dive between approaches in a way that the entirety of Buster Scruggs almost sits together satisfyingly, with a few jagged edges here and there.
The meat of the film is the run that begins with the Neeson/Melling duo, moves into Tom Waits’ adventure in searching for a gold pocket, and then reaches its fever point in “The Girl Who Got Rattled”, which is not only the longest of the entries, but is the one that hits the most dramatically satisfying beats throughout. Both Waits and Kazan are especially excellent in their respective Coen debuts, and Bill Heck (who closely resembles a young Gary Oldman) makes one hell of an impression for an actor I’ve somehow never seen before. This is the point where the viewer finds themselves most arrested, and while the short running time of the preceding stories keeps them from ever approaching slog territory, it’s at this point where the film really gels.
It’s a shame that they felt the need to close things out with “The Mortal Remains,” a painfully undercooked foray into the supernatural that takes the approach of a filmed play. Again, having seen the film twice now, my mind began to wander to other topics as Tyne Daly and Saul Rubinek bicker back and forth about some nonsense that I couldn’t be bothered to care about. When the credits hit, it’s such a strangely unsatisfying note to end on.
Luckily, those middle three stories have a lot to recommend. I particularly think that “All Gold Canyon” is an especially enticing venture, if only because it’s rather unlike anything the Coens have made before. Granted, it’s an adaptation of a Jack London short story, and that may make all the difference. But it’s exciting to see them tread some new ground this far into their career. And while it’s a little hit and miss as a collection, the entire effort of Buster Scruggs is worthy of praise simply as an exercise in a notoriously tough format. It’s funny, after they hit an extreme high-point with A Serious Man (perhaps their finest effort), the western True Grit was where they began to fall out of favor with this critic, and never quite regaining that momentum. Here’s hoping their return to Old West marks the end of that same period and a new leaf is being turned.