The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a series of six disparate western short films ranging from the ultra-violent to the cornball to the picturesque. Each one is a chapter from a vintage children’s book aptly titled The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, brought to life. Similar to Disney classics, the Coen’s introduce each account with a zoom into the book’s text and a gorgeous illustration lifted from one of their shots. Despite their differences, all of the shorts are blanketed in a wicked misanthropy depicting the unpredictable menace of the Old West, where you could be in be stabbed in the back by a friend or scalped by enemies in the blink of an eye.
The first short is “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” starring Tim Blake Nelson as the title character, a singing cowboy donned in flashy Roy Rodgers garb. Many dismiss him as a harmless yokel, but his “aw-shucks” grin and sweet drawl conceals the lightning-fast gun slinging skills that he unleashes during a misspent saloon poker game. Buster’s hokey musical performance throughout his merciless slaughter and the cartoonish violence with vivid blood splatter creates a remarkably bold opening.
In “Near Algodones,” James Franco plays a thief who finds himself narrowly close to death after battling a bank teller armored with pots and pans. By this sequence it becomes clear that each one will have a nihilistic focus on the act of dying or murder. “Near Algodones” hinges on a humorous last minute punchline, but on the whole it is a merely tolerable Sergio Leone-esque farce.
Liam Neeson portrays a tobacco-stained travelling showman who exploits a young soft-voiced Brit with no arms or legs known as The Artist in the gloomy yarn “Meal Ticket.” The pair wander from town to town where the disfigured performer recites eloquent passages of poetry, the Declaration of Independence, and Shakespeare in front of slowly dwindling audiences as the frigid frost thickens. His mangled body and painted clown face, with actors Harry Melling’s dolorous frown, is a heart-wrenching sight. The Coen brothers film this sequence in a bluish haze that evokes the bizarre melancholy of this gothic tale that builds to a devastatingly cruel climax.
“All Gold Canyon” pictures Tom Waits as a haggard gold prospector who disrupts a bucolic paradise in his frantic search. The Coens’ delicate depiction of the breathtaking countryside vistas and the patient pacing as he sifts through gold in the sparkling river is transfixing and sets a tranquil temporal tone that is brusquely interrupted when greed overpowers in the shocking twist ending.
“The Gal Who Got Rattled” is a magnificent sequence that could have been an extraordinary film on its own. Zoe Kazan stars as a timid loner who travels with her ineffectual brother across the Oregon Trail to pursue a hapless business deal and marry a man she has never met. Shortly after her brother dies of cholera, she falls for the taciturn leader of the expedition, played by the ruggedly handsome Bill Heck. Their quiet, nervous exchanges over the soft glow of the fire are deeply felt and you are completely invested audiences in their blooming courtship. The Native American battle towards the end of the sequence is thrilling, but also indicative of the Coen’s problematic adherence to old-fashioned western genre conventions. Throughout The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Native American characters are nothing more than villainous stereotypes. Carter Burwell’s score flourishes in this sequence, its sweeping and romantic beauty perfectly underscoring the crushingly tragic denouement that would have been an incredible way to end The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
However, the Coens’ anthology closes with “The Mortal Remains,” a Hitchockian Stagecoach about a quibbling group on a carriage bound for a mysterious destination. It is quite atmospheric with the swirling smoke and dark lighting, but its hushed eeriness so shortly following the epic “The Gal Who Got Rattled” makes it feel disappointing and slight. An absurdist mélange of biting tales that leaves a sour taste in your mouth, the Coen’s collection of westerns is a bit too scattershot. The mosaic arrangement of the shorts, varying in greatness and mediocrity, causes The Ballad of Buster Scruggs to miss the mark as a cohesive whole.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is available to stream on Netflix from November 16th
by Caroline Madden
Caroline hails from the home state of her hero, Bruce Springsteen. Some of her favorite films include Dog Day Afternoon, Raging Bull, Inside Llewyn Davis, and The Lord of the Rings. She has an MA degree in Cinema Studies from SCAD and her writing also appears on Fandor, Reverse Shot, IndieWire, and Vague Visages. You can follow her on Twitter @crolinss and Instagram @crolins