I love the Coen Brother’s and I adore a good western, so my anticipation for the Ballad of Buster Scruggs was at all time high, the film itself is separated into six unconnected vignette which make the film’s 133 minute runtime these were written over the course of a 25 year period. The film was given a limited release in theatres before landing on Netflix November 9th 2018.
This review will breakdown each story individually and I will rank them from worst to best. Each story has its own unique characters and tone all of which will feel familiar to any experienced Coen Brothers fan, Buster Scruggs features a stellar cast containing the likes of Brendan Gleeson, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits and Zoe Kazan and with the Coen Brothers at the helm they all put in good performances.
The first story follows a charismatic cowboy named Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), he pauses for a second to introduce himself and he also shares a little information about his current situation. We learn that Buster has a bounty on his head although he doesn’t seem too concerned with that, instead he takes offence at being called a misanthrope.
He continues on his merry way towards an old saloon which seems to be deserted in the middle of nowhere, Buster strolls into bar and is met by a group of rather unfriendly locals. He politely asks the bartender for a glass of whiskey although he request is impolitely declined, Buster of course doesn’t back down and he ends up getting into a gunfight which finishes in a violent mess.
Buster ends in a small town and he proceeds into the local saloon and despite his charm and friendly demeanour once again the scene in violence although this time certain things turn out differently.
This is a good way to open the film and the story itself combines the Coen Brothers dark sense of humour with a violent touch that both work in harmony, this vignette is by far the most comedic and light hearted in the film and this tone continues into the second story named ‘Near Algodones’
We see a young cowboy (James Franco) gazing upon a small isolated bank, he coolly walks into the bank and approaches the cashier. The two share a brief exchange although it is clear the cowboy hasn’t just come in for a chat, the cashier makes sure to mention this isn’t the first time his bank has been robbed. Still the cowboy persists and forces cashier at gunpoint to open up the safe and start handing over the cash.
The cashier bends down to grab a key and out nowhere multiple shotgun bullets blast through the counter, the cowboy jumps in surprise and narrowly avoids losing his legs. The cashier manages to escape through the backdoor and he vanishes for a second, in a panic the cowboy gets out of the bank and is met with more gunfire as he finds cover behind a well.
The cowboy peaks his head up for a second to survey the area and he shoots blindly in the hope of hitting something, the cashier rushes him whilst screaming at the top of his lungs. The cowboy desperately tries to put him down although it doesn’t work, the cashier charges directly at him and bashes him in the face with a shotgun knocking him out cold.
Next we see the cowboy on a tree hanging upside down with a large group of outlaws surrounding him, as the cowboy wakes up he is informed that he has been sentenced to death and one outlaw asks him what his final words will be. “That pan covered son of a bitch back at the bank don’t hardly fight fair, in my opinion”, “Okay, that it?”, “I reckon it is”.
Through dumb luck the cowboy manages to survive although his luck doesn’t last long
Similar to the first vignette everything takes a sudden violent turn and the cowboy’s story has a rather dark end, this part of the film has a old school western feel with it’s cinematography and use of locations. James Franco surprisingly fits the role of a cowboy really well and I love the unique touches that could only originate from the film’s directors.
The dark tone continues into the third vignette named ‘The Meal Ticket’, we are quietly introduced to a impresario (Liam Neeson) and he appears to be setting up some kind of stage outside of a small town. We see a poster on the man’s wagon which give us a small indication of what is going to follow.
A large crowd starts to gather outside the wagon in anticipation and the curtains fly open to reveal a surprise. We see a young man named Harrison (Harry Melling) placed in the middle of the stage with bright fluoriscent lamps lighting him, Harrison doesn’t have any arms and legs which provokes a unsettled reaction from the audience.
Harrison recites poems from the likes of Shakespeare and Abraham Lincoln whilst the audience listens intently to every single word, during the performance the impresario goes around the audience with a hat asking for money and initially profits are high. We follow the two characters as they travel to different towns with the goal of making money, the more we about the impresario makes it clear he is not a good man even though he looks after Harrison.
Eventually less and less people turn up to their performances and this forces the impresario to take action, the story takes an unexpected turn and has by far the most disturbing ending. I didn’t have as much to say about ‘The Meal Ticket’ as I think it is one of the film’s weaker stories although from a visual perspective it is the strongest vignette in the film.
We move onto what is perhaps the most bizarre vignette in this film, the fourth story named ‘The Gold Canyon’ follows a prospector (Tom Waits) as he arrives in a beautiful mountain valley in search of gold. The story has a slow and peaceful quality to it and I love Tom Waits unusual performance. He quietly set up his camp by a river and every single day he digs relentlessly into the ground in the hope of finding gold.
As the Prospector continues digging he starts to discover smalls pieces of gold that give him encouragement to keep going. To feed himself he relies mostly on the environment and he ends up stealing some eggs from an owl who lives in a nearby tree.
Eventually the prospector digs into a large part of the ground which is filled with gold, he proceeds to dig further and further where he finds even more gold. He pauses for a second sensing there is something behind him, we suddenly hear a gunshot and the prospector falls down face first.
We cut to a young outlaw standing on top of the mound he pauses for a second and sits back to light up a cigarette, for a while it seems to be the end for the prospector until the outlaw climbs into the hole. He jumps on the outlaw catching him by surprise and the prospector proceeds to overpower the man. He wrestles his gun away and shoots him multiple times in chest whilst cursing him out.
The story ends with the old man walking away from the valley with a load of gold in his procession and everything returns back to normal. This is in my opinion the most unusual vignette in this film although at the same time I really love it, Tom Waits does a wonderful job as the eccentric old man and I find his brief adventure to be a compelling watch.
The vignette that follows is the most difficult one to describe, the name of it is the ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled’ and it stars Zoe Kazan as Alice Longabaugh. Alice lives with her grandmother, mother and brother in a little old house, we are introduced to everyone during a family dinner. Her brother Gilbert has gone into business with a wealthy business and a part of the deal involves Alice marrying this man.
The next morning Alice and Gilbert journey off into the wild west in a wagon train, with their destination being Oregon. Early on in their journey Gilbert suddenly becomes seriously ill and this throws of their plans into the air. Despite this major setback Alice still continues on and she starts to become quite close with a one of the wagon leaders named Billy Knapp (Bill Heck).
The two of them frequently share conversations with each other and Mr Knapp openly aids her with any help she requires. Their relationship progresses to the point where Mr Knapp proposes to Alice, he expresses his desire to settle down and raise a family, initially she hesitates although eventually she changes her mind. The next morning Alice disappears from the wagon train and the other wagon leader Mr Arthur (Grainger Arthur) sneaks out to search for her.
It isn’t long before he finds Alice and he rushes over to bring her back, he prepares to place her on the back of his horse until his attention is caught by an Indian sentinel watching on in the distance. He warns Alice that it won’t be the only Indian and soon enough we see a small army rushing towards the two of them, Mr Arthur holds back the first wave comfortably although after the second wave proves to be a bit more challenging.
Before the attack Mr Arthur informed Alice to shoot herself if he got in any trouble to avoid her being captured, an Indian pounces on him and for the moment it seems like Mr Arthur has been killed. Although he manages to defeat the final Indian and he goes over to Alice to see that she has shot herself, he walks back to the wagon train in anguish unsure of what to say to Mr Knapp.
For me this is my least favourite vignette in the film, the story seems to drag on a without anything happening. I like Zoe Kazan and I think her performance is good, in my opinion there just isn’t enough meat in this story to hold my interest. I like it although I certainly don’t love it.
Finally we have reached the last vignette and personally I think it is worth the wait, the majority of the story takes place in a horse cart with the same five characters. We open with the beautiful singing voice of an Englishman named Thigpen (Jonjo O’Neill), he is seated next to an Irishman Clarence (Brendan Gleeson) and opposite a Frenchmen Rene (Saul Rubinek), Mrs Betjeman (Tyne Daly) and a trapper (Chelcie Ross).
The conversation is slow at first until the trapper begins to talk about his life, he describes his relationship with a native woman and goes on to talk about his life in the wilderness. Mrs Betjeman looks on as if she is judging every word he says, she is next to talk about herself.
She explains she is on her way to reunite with her husband who she hasn’t seen in over three years, her husband is a successful doctor who she clearly idolises. Her views on everything have are rigid and this creates an argument between her and Rene.
Rene questions her relationship with her husband and he also attacks the trapper’s oversimplified view of life, the argument builds and builds to the point where Mrs Betjeman almost explodes. The discussion comes back to Thigpen and Clarence and this is where the story takes a sudden dark turn, we learn the two of them are bounty hunters and they have a dead body with them on their journey.
This clearly affects the three of them and when they cart stops at an eerily looking hotel they seem reluctant to step in. As I mentioned above this my favourite part in the film, I like when a scene slows down and we hear the characters have a discussion with each other. I find the contrasting views of each character to be interesting to watch and I love how the tone shifts from comedy to dark on a dime.
If I were to rank each story I would put ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled’ in last place, then ‘Meal Ticket’, ‘Near Algodones’, ‘All Gold Canyon’, ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ and ‘The Mortal Remains’ in first place.
I don’t think this film is up to the quality of the Coen Brother’s best work although it is definitely worth a viewing, I think the Coen Brothers are one of the greatest filmmakers working today and the fact they consistently produce great art backs up their greatness, long live the Coen Brothers and their wonderfully weird films!