Three strangers, riding a coach to damnation. A grizzled prospector, mining for gold. A sad young woman, traveling to Oregon. An incompetent bandit, avoiding hanging once, only to be executed elsewhere. A disabled man, forced to read Shakespeare for money. A singing cowboy, laughing as he guns down his foes. What do these people have in common? Nothing, apart from the fact that they populate The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, a new Netflix anthology film, and the latest flick from the Coen Brothers. Is it a rip-roaring good time? Well…
I’m a fan of Joel and Ethan Coen, though I feel I should put an asterisk next to that statement. While it’s undeniable that The Big Lebowski is one of my favorite films of all time, and No Country For Old Men and True Grit are two of the 21st Centuries greatest Westerns, the Coens have always felt like Hollywood directors who have no interest in making Hollywood movies. What I mean by that is, they’ve enjoyed mainstream success with traditional, three-act flicks, like Fargo, No Country and True Grit. These are films with characters who have clear goals, pursue them throughout the story, and ultimately succeed or fail based on flaws they have. They’re straightforward, and appealing to mass audiences. But these movies are the exception, rather than the rule, in the Coens’ filmography. Most of the time, the Coens will start their films off with straightforward set-ups, like a studio head needing to find a kidnapped actor, or a screenwriter needing to finish a script, but then they’ll get bored with these premises, and go off on idiosyncratic, unrelated tangents. And that’s not me spouting a conspiracy theory. The Coens have said in various interviews, particularly those concerning their comedies, that they don’t often have an end goal in mind, and will just create new scenes depending on how they feel, regardless of whether or not that scene fits in the overarching narrative, because, to use their own words, “it doesn’t really matter.”As a result, many of their films don’t feel like they were made for anyone but the Coens themselves. So I’m always somewhat nervous whenever they have a new film coming out. Will it be a film I can enjoy, or will it just be a two hour inside joke that I’m not privy to?
Well, having sat down and watched Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, I can say this; it’s better than their last flick, Hail, Caesar. Since it’s an anthology film, the stories are short and self-contained, so you don’t need to worry about them going on too long, or understanding how they connect to each other. The acting is good, the costumes and sets are immaculate, and the humor, as you expect from the Coens, is quirky and fun. There’s also some familiar faces onscreen, like Tim Blake Nelson, who plays the titular Buster Scruggs. Unfortunately, because it’s an anthology, the quality of the stories is very uneven. There are some shorts that are just better paced, better told, or, hell, better thought-out, than others. My least favorite is probably the second, the story of the inept bandit who avoids hanging once, only to be executed moments later. That’s really all there is to it. We don’t know the bandit’s name. There’s no arc. There’s no goal. He barely says anything. This truly felt like a story that the Coens started, then got bored with and tossed aside. And there are other entries in this anthology that feel the same way. Not all, though. My favorite, easily, is the third, which tells the story of a smarmy Irish showman, played by Liam Neeson, who parades a disabled boy, well-versed in Shakespeare, around the Old West. It is so tragic, and you learn so much about these characters without them ever saying a word to each other. It’s a great acting showcase for Neeson and Harry Melling, who plays the young man, and it’s just a perfect example of “show, don’t tell” storytelling. It still haunts me, that’s how good it is.
So, in the end, Ballad Of Buster Scruggs is an uneven, but ultimately enjoyable, watch. It’s six short stories that don’t have to be seen in any particular order. If you don’t like one, you can always go to another. Sure, some of the narratives are half-baked, and the cinematography isn’t as good as in some of the Coens’ other flicks since this one wasn’t lensed by Roger Deakins, but there’s ultimately enough good to recommend it for a casual weekend watch. Make of this what you will.