I’m honestly a big fan of anthology movies done right. I’m also a big fan of the Coen Brothers. Put them together and it should be a match made in cinema heaven, right? Well we got to see what this pair of visionary directors was capable of with their own anthology project thanks to Netflix through “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”, a movie that explores six unique stories set on the American Frontier. Because this was a slow week for movie releases I took the time to take in this Netflix original, which had an extremely limited theatrical release as well, and see for myself if it really contains the Coen Brothers’ magic or if its stories are as memorable or entertaining as promised. This is my review of “the Balled of Buster Scruggs”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
As I said “The Balled of Buster Scruggs” is composed of six different stories with the likes of Tim Blake Nelson, Clancy Brown, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck, Grainger Hines, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson and others starring in the different segments. All six stories capture different genres and standalone tales of individuals in the American Frontier. The first story, the titular tale in this flick, is a comedy focusing on a singing gunslinger, the second called “Near Algodones” sees a bank robber who tries to escape a hanging, the third called “Meal Ticket” focuses on an Impresario who struggles to make money from his no-armed no-legged artist partner, the fourth called “All Gold Canyon” sees a prospector who tries to find the “pocket” of gold on a lush green field, the fifth “The Gal Who Got Rattled” sees a woman bond with the leader of a wagon train as she tries to deal with her insecurities in a dangerous world, and the final story, “The Mortal Remains”, focuses on a group of strangers in a stagecoach whose journey may not lead them to the destination they expected.
First of all, I loved every single story this film had to tell. The movie is composed of six different smaller stories all self-contained and separate from each other in the grand scheme of things. Every single tale kept my attention. Not one of them feels wasted, phoned in or taken for granted in the slightest. They’re all well written and each capture different tones and even different genres to give them their own personalities. I feel like we see pretty much every great thing about the Coen Brothers as directors here. It seems like they took the opportunity to try and explore their talents with all different kinds of approaches to cinema and the great thing is they ALL work. Comedy, horror, thriller, action and drama are all covered in the different stories with twists and turns abound to add some tragedy and/or entertaining moments of levity to the mix to keep the viewers on their toes. I would say one of the movie’s biggest weaknesses is how some stories get more love than others, but I’ll get to that in the negatives.
I genuinely had fun watching this film and wondering what was going to come next. Each of these stories could have made for their own standalone feature film but instead we see the best of each one with a little bit of everything for anyone to appreciate. I’m serious, anyone watching this movie can probably find at least one segment that they can’t help but love. Most anthologies limit themselves by sticking to a single genre, such as horror for example, and thus limiting the imagination of the different segments. With “The Balled of Buster Scruggs” yes, every short story is a western, but western in itself is more of a subgenre nowadays and the Coen Brothers seemed to understand this when making this movie as they refused to allow any of these six stories to feel like the other five. While they all contain similar settings, each story captures different themes, different tones, different color pallets, different acting styles from their leads, different approaches to how the script is written, and even different designs of characters including Native Americans who are featured in numerous tales but are presented differently each time. Everything the Coen Brothers had up their sleeves they through at this movie and it’s just oh so fantastic to experience one story at a time.
As I said the acting is also great with every story showcasing some awesomely committed and fun takes on different memorable characters. By far my favorite performance is Tim Blake Nelson as the titular character Buster Scruggs who sets this film into motion in the very first segment. Nelson is hilarious, and I mean gut-bustlingly funny in this film in a part he was born to play as a suave, confident, maybe slightly pretentious gunslinger who I promise you’ll want to be as cool as after you see him for yourself. Other notable performances include Liam Neeson as the Impresario in “Meal Ticket” in one of his most subtly awesome performances to date, James Franco as a bank robber who turns his impending death into a tongue an cheek outlook on life in “Near Algodones” and Tom Waits as a prospector who finally finds his big haul in “All Gold Canyon”. There are plenty of great performances scattered throughout these stories, but these were definitely the highlights for me. The entire group involved in the final story, “The Mortal Remains”, makes that segment probably the most resonant segment of this movie closing things out on a high note. The fact that each script is written very well with great pacing and direction to back them up only helps these performers shine even brighter while never outshining each other. It’s a perfect cast complimenting perfect direction and some awesome writing to bring six very engaging stories to life.
As delightful and engrossing as “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is I can’t help but feel like a few stories got more attention than others. Now this isn’t always a bad thing I guess because not every story deserves a full twenty minutes but at least two narratives, “Near Algodones” and “Meal Ticket”, do feel like there was more that could have been explored. I liked the ideas the Coen brothers were going for in these shorts and in many ways the concepts and messages are fully realized but I also wanted to see more from what these stories had to offer. Maybe they could have used the time better or added a few more minutes to explore something new in the story but compared to the other four I thought these two entries were a little forsaken and thus, to me, they are the most easily forgotten which isn’t saying a whole lot because NONE of these stories are actually easy to forget. They’re all memorable in their own way it’s just those two seem to have gotten less commitment from the filmmakers than the other four.
Maybe the only other negative I can point out from this film isn’t even are true problem, but more of a personal taste thing depending on the viewer. Now, personally I loved every one of these stories, but not everyone will. That’s kind of a given with an anthology film. But going back to one of my positives of the movie, each segment here feels like its own story with its own emotional core and even its own genre whereas other anthology films usually stick to one solid genre and take different approaches on that one category of film. Because “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” explores different genres with similar settings, for some the movie may only be entertaining one sixth of the time. If you’re not willing to enjoy the experience as a whole then some of these segments may fall flat where others are right up your ally. I have my own preferences like the titular segment and “All Gold Canyon” but I also found every segment to be something special. Not everyone is going to feel that way. Some will see a segment or two as boring or pretentious which could very well dampen the viewing experience for you. However, if you go in ready and willing to enjoy the ride and embrace what every individual story has to say “The Balled of Buster Scruggs” is an adventure worth the time.
This was an amazing movie in my opinion. In fact, it’s an amazing collection of six smaller stories that each could have made for their own great movie. Together they form an awesome collection and one of the best anthology collections it has ever been my pleasure to experience. Not every story gets the love it deserves but all six have something to offer and juggle different genres and styles perfectly without any loss of quality or fun. Many big names were involved in this picture too and all of them stand out with great performances complimented by great writing, focused direction and fun storytelling. It’s just an all-around neat collection of very engaging and memorable western tales that not only prove that the western genre is still alive and well but that the anthology genre can still be a marketable approach as well. We all know the Coen Brothers are talented and capable behind the camera, but “The Balled of Buster Scruggs” is not only one of their most fun projects, it’s a defining piece of cinema art that captures every bit of the incredible talent and range of these filmmakers and every performer involved from the first story to the last.