Netflix's The Ballad of Buster Scruggs Review
Or what we do when we can't find a strong enough story to make an entire movie
This Coen Brothers' anthology boasts some memorable moments but still feels insubstantial and distinctly made-for-Netflix.The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is actually more descriptive of the first of six tales of the Old West, written and directed by the brothers who gave us gems like Miller's Crossing, The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men.
Their films are still an acquired taste, however, with perhaps more marmite feelings towards everything from O Brother Where Art Thou to some of their recent output like Gambit, A Serious Man and Hail, Caesar! Known for their distinctive humour - often really quite dark - as well as their keen observations on human behaviour, their True Grit remake was a solid effort (mostly thanks to Jeff Bridges) so it should be an easy fit for them to return to the Old West.
Their True Grit remake was a solid effort so it should be an easy fit for them to return to the Old West.
Here they have compiled half a dozen largely unrelated and disparate tales, all reflecting the exploits of an eclectic group of individuals, from the story of Tim Blake Nelson's dapper, singing sharp-shooter, Buster Scruggs, to James Franco's unlucky bank robber, Liam Neeson's beleaguered show-runner, Tom Waits' prospector, Zoe Kazan's girl on a wagon trail, and a carriage full of familiar faces on their final ride.
Scruggs gets off to a decent enough start, with Nelson a curiously compelling little lead in the first tale, but after a few sharp-shooting encounters (including a great face-off against a booming Clancy 'Highlander' Brown), the story goes off the rails and makes you immediately scratch your head about what the Brothers are up to here.
It's a moment that they don't revisit across the next five stories, making you wonder, why put it at the start and take you out of the experience barely after it has just started? James Franco's bank robbing tale is another solid effort, particularly with Stephen Root on excellent eccentric form as the bank teller, but similarly meanders into oblivion, casting a feeling of ultimate irony over the film up until that point, but also a feeling of ultimate pointlessness. This only persists to the tale involving Liam Neeson running a show with a multiple amputee who does speeches.
Scruggs isn't going to win anybody over with its opening salvo, and those who don't stick with it will miss out on its long overdue best bits.
If you can make it through this, then The Ballad of Buster Scruggs does get better, a lot better, with the prospecting tale, starring Tom Waits in an almost solo performance, the absolute pinnacle of the anthology. It's a great little short movie, and Waits is excellent, with one moment purely and utterly Coens in its painful build-up. The next tale almost maintains this standard, with Zoe Kazan (Amazon's The Big Sick) on great form as a young woman on a long voyage who encounters unexpected love and unsurprising trouble along the way. It matches the tone of the prospector scene - with less of the whimsy of the opening salvo - and still manages to pull off its ending, unlike perhaps the earlier stories. The anthology doesn't, however, go out on a high, with the final carriage ride - pitching for a darker, almost supernatural variation on the opening sequences from The Hateful Eight - another pointless and thankless endeavour.
Netflix is easily the best place to land The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and it's hard to believe anybody would have ever even considered this for theatrical release. Likely the best way to watch this - for those who may run out of patience - is to skip to the prospector tale and, if you enjoy that, watch the whole set from the beginning. Scruggs isn't going to win anybody over with its opening salvo (or rather at least the very odd end to an otherwise great opening chapter), and those who don't stick with it will miss out on its long overdue best bits further down the line.
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