Movie Review – “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”

TMN movie critic Gordon McPherson gives “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” four out of five chickens.

Rocking like a seesaw between the hilarious and the tragic, the anthology film “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” paints a grimly compelling picture of the Wild West.

A Netflix exclusive directed by Joel and Ethan Coen (the masterminds behind “The Big Lebowski” and “Raising Arizona,” among other classics), the film presents six stories of life and death on the American frontier. The first and best vignette, the titular “Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” centers around Scruggs, “The San Saba Songbird,” played by Tim Blake Nelson, an upbeat lover of singing who has devilish aim with a six-shooter. The second tale, “Near Algodones,” features James Franco as a horribly unlucky bank robber. Next comes the chilling “Meal Ticket,” featuring Liam Neeson as an impresario who looks after a melancholic performer without arms or legs played by Harry Melling.

“All Gold Canyon” follows, with Tom Waits as a weary prospector who finds luck in a pristine valley. The next and longest section, “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” is a tale of romance and unfortunate circumstance along the Oregon Trail starring Zoe Kazan. Lastly, “The Mortal Remains” is a surreal, off-putting story of a stagecoach ride with existential themes starring Jonjo O’Neill and Brendan Gleeson.

These stories, despite their obvious differences, are connected by the Coens’ trademark black humor and nihilism. The Wild West was an unforgiving place, according to the Coens — lawless, untamed, uncompromising and still relevant in 2018. Each story adds a different layer to this negative view, leaving a solemn aftertaste by the end credits despite the film’s undeniably comedic moments. No other filmmakers could concoct such a wildly unpredictable, yet oddly consistent, emotional roller coaster.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” can be laugh-out-loud outrageous one moment and deadly serious the next. Moments of exaggeration are followed by bursts of extreme, sudden violence that lend each scene a palpable sense of danger.

The dialogue is classic Coen, employing deadpan, self-aware wit that enhances both the irreverence and existential nature of each vignette. For example, Scruggs’ ironically happy-go-lucky singing after killing Curly Joe (by a “downright Archimedean” method), serves to deepen the impact of the unexpected violence down the road.

Through these tonal shifts, the Coens keep viewers on edge and in a state of nervous anticipation. Death will inevitably play a role in each vignette, but when, where and how is often unclear. The Wild West wasn’t a sympathetic time, and viewers shouldn’t expect the central characters of each vignette to be shielded from harm. Death might result from one’s decisions or find its way through sheer unluckiness.

Despite the serious themes of “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” the cinematography left my jaw agape in complete and utter astonishment (see this film in theaters if possible). Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel perfectly captures the stark beauty of the American frontier, from the barren and apocalyptic-esque to the lush and heavenly. This textured photography occasionally provides a sense of comfort offset by the brutal nature of each vignette.

The score by Carter Burwell elicits feelings of fireside warmth. This music, combined with the film’s storybook format, belies the film’s unflinching brutality. “Buster Scruggs” is most assuredly not a romanticized vision of history, despite what these nostalgic qualities might lead viewers to believe.

This being an anthology film, however, certain vignettes are clearly stronger than others. Indeed, “Near Algodones” underwhelms through its brevity, while “Meal Ticket” and “The Mortal Remains” slightly overstay their welcome. The conclusion of “Meal Ticket” also seemed too cruel for its own good — the Coens went too far. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” “All Gold Canyon” and “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” on the other hand, are the real meat of the film.

The twisted anthology “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” ranks among the Coens’ best works — a funny, wild and profound film cinephiles should cherish.

Gordon McPherson is TMN’s movie critic. He is a junior communication major.