The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; western anthology; Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen; segment “All Gold Canyon” based on a Jack London story; “The Gal Who Got Rattled” inspired by a story by Stewart Edward White. 133 minutes. F
Damn if I don’t love the Coen Brothers. Their films are always so damned fresh, brimming with energy; filled with life and so much death. I appreciate how well they are able to slide from genre to genre, turning each on their cheeks – lovingly, of course. Their new film for Netflix is a return to the Western – a genre they’ve visited in various forms through the years.
The western is a genre that doesn’t get a lot of love these days. By presenting not only a direct western, but an anthology as well, Joel and Ethan continue to take their risks of oddball features the general public won’t go for, but those who appreciate something different and daring will jump right into.
They’ve been writing the six stories presented here over the last 30 years. I’ll talk about the individual ones below, but each is distinct on their own in tone and style , with different focuses. Unlike many modern anthologies, each is fully separate with no cross plots or characters. Like many anthologies, the final result is a little uneven, but still a fantastic watch as their films are. Despite the different stories, the whole feels so very Coen; both in look and the dark humorous demeanor the flick. Show me a moment without telling me it’s a Coen film, and I’d tell you it was.
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” – Starring Tim Blake Nelson and Clancy Brown.
The titular segment is my favorite the first, and the shortest. Boo. It’s dark comedy with the brightest over-saturated look with a huge smile. Nelson is Scruggs, a singing cowboy with a penchant for bloodshed despite his cheery demeanor. The dissonance on his attitude and look to his actions is the driving humor. I watched this segment with my own huge grin to match Nelson’s. The showdown with Clancy Brown is one of my favorite moments of the YEAR. It’s too bad this year also had “Shallows” from A Star is Born, as I really want “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” to win it.
“Near Algodones” – starring James Franco and Stephen Root.
PAN SHOT! Damn I love Stephen Root. The second story finds James Franco as a bank robber in a failed attempt and what happens after. The strongest portion is the awry robbery, with Root as the crafty clerk. After that the segment meaners to completion, making it the weakest of the group.
“Meal Ticket” – starring Liam Neeson and Harry Melling (Dudley Dursley from Harry Potter).
I love the gas-lit sharp darkness look of this segment. Liam Neeson is a lonely traveler, presenting Melling’s human catipilllar orator in smalls towns across the snowy mountains of the west. The segment is quiet and brooding, and a little uncomfortable and sad. Damn that ending. Holy shit.
“All Gold Canyon” starring Tom Waites and Mr. Pocket.
Holy shit, the landscapes. Sweeping visages of an untouched valley and other landscapes are just as much of a star in this segment, my second favorite, as Tom Waites. Waites (honestly thought he was Bruce Dern at first) has a one man show as a prospector looking for a pocket of gold by a river. Tom Waites battles dirt! Waities search for the gold is endearing and he is great nearly all on his own, mumbling and fussing. MR POCKET!
“The Girl Who Was Rattled” starring Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck
A solid, if not a little too long, segment. Kazan is part of a wagon train who is stuck in a predicament for payment when her brother dies. She makes a connection with one of the leaders, and Indians threaten attack. I’m at a blank on what else to write as I found it to be a weak segment as well. Kazan is good, but the story drags on for much longer than it as legs for.
“The Mortal Remains” – starring Brendan Gleeson and Tyne Daly
Set nearly wholly within a stagecoach, consisting of conversation of death and life among those riding within; the final segment highlights the strength of the Coens with personal interactions. Sharply written and fantastically performed, I loved this segment despite the cramped single-location and based nearly all on dialog over action.
My order for preference for the stories: “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” “All Gold Canyon” “The Mortal Remains” “Meal Ticket” “The Girl Who Was Rattled” and “Near Algonones”
The weak segments are all still fantastic filmmaking despite their issues. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is another darkly hilarious, incredibly shot, and wonderfully idiosyncratic film from the Coen Brothers, continuing to be at the top of my favorite filmmakers.