‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’: spurs, saddles and death

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more.

By Brandon Semler

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” (2018) offers six explorations of mortality in the format of separate vignettes, allowing directors Joel and Ethan Coen to explore many sides of the same die (no pun intended). 

During these stories set in the Old West (post-Civil War),  a very characteristic through-line of dark humor, dire circumstances and general melancholy is executed with the film-making mastery that the Coen name now implies.

Beginning with a story featuring the jovial, singing, mass-murdering cowboy Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), the film carries on to an incompetent bankrobber (James Franco) and his struggles with the law, a bleak arrangement between a physically disabled performer (Harry Melling) and a traveling showman (Liam Neeson), a prospector (Tom Waits) and his search for a pocket of gold, a young woman  (Zoe Kazan) and man (Bill Heck) searching for a new life in Oregon, and a small group of citizens on a carriage ride to the unknown. 

The Coens navigate the sweeping landscapes of the Old West stunningly in their second collaboration with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. From capturing the vastness of the open prairie to the sun-glazed beauty of a small clearing in a forest, the stories unfold over the many terrains of the place and time. 

While nihilism seems to be at the heart of the film, much of it is executed with a twinkle in the eye. Like many of the past Coens’ works, the film sometimes chuckles at the meaninglessness of it all, while sometimes just letting it crawl up your skin and live with you.  But in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” instead of marinating over it while the credits roll, you’re on to the next short. 

And when the credits do roll, the distractions end, you’re left contemplating all six stories at once.

The film wades into romance territory — not a common Coen trait — with “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” In the short, a romance blossoms with a foundation of practicality and mutual benefit, doomed to the whirlwind of needless tragedy that life on earth so frequently throws at us (as do the Coens). 

The performances throughout are powerful. Tim Blake Nelson’s cartoonish portrayal in the opening “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” provides a mostly comical introduction to a film that travels to very dark places. 

Melling delivers the most heartbreaking performance in “Meal Ticket,” conveying a confident and poetic voice during his performances, but displaying the most meaning offstage with just his expressive, longing eyes.

Tom Waits is gold (again, no pun) in “All Gold Canyon,” which is the most pleasant of the vignettes.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is currently streaming on Netflix.  Give it a go.

Status: Recommend

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

Drawing by William C. Hensley


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