Ballad of Buster Scruggs review Liam NeesonYear: 2018
Director(s): Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Writer(s): Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Region of Origin: US
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Rating: R
Digital, Color, 133 mins

Synopsis: An anthology film comprised of six stories, each dealing with a different aspect of life in the Old West. (Source)

The Coen brothers are no strangers to the western. The genre’s influence can be deeply felt throughout their entire body of work. Films like No Country For Old Men, Blood Simple and True Grit tackle these aesthetics head on. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs finds the brothers freshly returning to the genre, amplifying its timeless ideas with quirky tales about death, hardship, and outlaws. Using the anthology format, the directors’ latest is a well-curated collection of stories, each bursting with their own brand of eccentricity and characters. This is as funny as the directors have ever been, but also the most devastating. With stories that push the genre and expectation to the limit, the final effort is unhinged and unpredictable. It also explores the finite nature of life and death’s indiscriminate nature.

In total, there are six stories, split into chapters and introduced by lavish illustrations. The first deals with the titular Buster Scruggs. He’s a traveling outlaw who fashions himself as a singer but is seen as a misanthrope to the public. He’s got a high price on his head and an itchy trigger finger. Directly after, we get a story about a wannabe bank robber. A failed job puts the cowboy in a sticky situation. In one of the film’s most melancholy entries, the next chapter deals with a traveling theatre company of just two men. One, is an aging promotor, the other, a man with no legs or arms, who recites captivating monologues despite a waning audience. The next story deals with a lone prospector searching for gold amidst a valley of unspeakable beauty. His efforts disrupt the natural order of things and bring about a hidden threat. A story about a brother and sister follows next, tracing their journey on a wagon trail and its mounting misfortunes. The final tale pits five stagecoach passengers as they race to an unknown destination.

Amidst the film’s rich visuals and at-times lively sequences, are stories tied together by a sobering view of mortality and misfortune. Each chapter goes out of its way to prove how the time period earned the title of “wild” west, with characters fending for themselves in ways that don’t shy from the grotesque. Still, the film isn’t dark for the sake of it, but a reflection of the way our lives outlive us, and the legacy that we leave behind in a life that offers no promises. Of course, the Coens deliver this message via their brand of off-color humor, witty dialogue and singular sense of irony. There’s a true sense of showmanship throughout, but it’s only ever in service to the deeply felt stories of humanity slipping between the cracks. Allowing each story the pace and length they need to cut deep, the film strikes with intimacy despite its large sense of scale and scope.

Ballad of Buster Scruggs review Zoe KazanThe film’s wildly diverse stories are matched by an appropriately eccentric cast. There are simply too many to note, but a few rise to the top of the bunch. As Scruggs, Tim Blake Nelson is wildly rapturous. Able to bring the same enthusiasm to his songs as he is to violently kill his prey, Nelson’s Scruggs sets a pace and tone that’s hard to beat. Opposite each other, Liam Neeson and Harry Melling are riveting in a story that crosses companionship with crass methods of survival. I don’t want to spoil it, but their story is brutal. Tom Waits is fun as a prospector who can’t catch a break. He’s the sole character in his segment and commands the screen. Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck and Grainger Hines headline one of the longest installments. Their story feels the most different from the rest, with characters that get more face-time for something that really cuts. The entire cast of the final chapter, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Jonjo O’Neill, Saul Rubinek and Chelcie Ross send the film off on a high note. Together, they’re a combustible crew that wrings tension and humor from a minimalist setup.

Though the film’s unwieldy runtime may feel a bit much for some, it coheres to a satisfying whole. Like any anthology, some stories are more interesting than others, but every chapter is a welcome break from the last. Despite carrying a definitive through line, the Coens also never feel like they are repeating themselves, navigating tales with their own distinct qualities and sense of bleakly unforgiving fate. In many ways, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an anti-western mixtape of what we love most from the directors. It’s endlessly entertaining, sneaks up on us with its existentialist observations, and never once conforms to our expectations.

SG