Film Review – The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

The Coen brothers have established some reputable trademarks for themselves; most notably, wacky humour, unpredictable plots and perfectly framed camera shots. After films like Raising Arizona (1987) and True Grit (2010) ignited critics and audiences alike with wonder, Joel and Ethan Coen swelled their budgets from indie-flick to Hollywood blockbuster. Their 2016 movie Hail, Caesar! swarmed with energy and famous-faces. But I was a little let down as it seemed the price for Hollywoods glamour was the intricate flair and attention to detail the Coen’s had previously mastered.

I was afraid the same would come with their newest Netflix hit The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. But I was very, very wrong.

And gladly so! With a trailer flaunting the cinematic gloss and equally star-studded cast list, the Coen’s subverted my expectations with a return to ingenious creativity. I say plotlines (plural) as (again, against expectations) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is not one but six stories. Short stories, I should add. It’s not a six-hour movie, don’t worry! Though all set to the backdrop of the Wild West, these short-films are of differentiating genres. Some funny, some dramatic; some downright bizarre or darkly depressing. An open mind must be maintained when watching this film. A new level of unpredictability, even for the Coen brothers, is given to us. I gave up guessing what was about to happen.

Time Blake Nelson as Buster Scruggs

That said, and what is truly admirable the filmmakers talents, the narrative as a whole remains tonally continuous. With different genres, themes and emotions flicking between each Western, it’s amazing how they all fit together so commendably. They were, as the saying goes, each cut from the same cloth. Playing on the typical Coen themes of vengeance, humour, morality and American idioms, a clear thread is followed throughout the entire film.

This thread can be seen as represented by a book used to flick through the pages of each story. Much like a fairy-tale. And there is an ominousness that surrounds the entire catalogue of stories through this. We never see the person reading the book. The endings are ambiguous- often gloomily so. There’s something we don’t fully know. It’s as if we are depraved of the bigger picture. And it’s this subtle notion that really brings them altogether.

Of course, when given a set of mini-films it’s unavoidable that you will prefer some over others. For me, there was only one story that I found a little dull. But honestly, it was most likely down to personal preference. I enjoyed the others too much to care by the end anyway! Fully engaging and cleverly written, the Coen brothers proved themselves again stylistic and imaginative.

Creative plotlines and off-beat scenarios were matched with fully formed, well developed characters. A real example of skilled storytelling was the managing of all this in such small amounts of time. And beyond that, sometimes with little dialogue. The third tale (probably my favourite) had a theatre-performing protagonist that never once spoke off-stage. And his partner probably said a total of about two sentences. Yet, did we understand and sympathize with them? Absolutely. It’s somewhat infuriating that we only get such a small slice of this great cinema.

Some have even gone as far as to complain about the unsatisfying feeling following The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. But what can that do but illustrate how entertaining it is? We just want more! I personally feel the lack of clarification adds to the mystery of the film. We aren’t supposed to know it all. And that’s the point. Granted, the very final scene could have been a little clearer…but I forgive it. Overall, I think this polished inventory superbly exemplifies the many abilities of the Coen brothers. We get the eccentricities of The Big Lebowski (1998), black comedy of Fargo (1996) and gritty foreboding of No Country for Old Men (2007) all in one.