“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” (2018) Review

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

Dirs. Joel and Ethan Coen; Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Harry Melling, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan
[2.5 out of 4 stars]

The Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan) have amassed quite an oeuvre over three decades of filmmaking. From Blood Simple (1984), their first commercial film together, to their most recent, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), their films are known for their quirky characters, dark humor and fascination with death. Many of their films (Fargo [1996], True Grit [2010], No Country For Old Men [2007]), rank among some of my favorites, but Buster Scruggs is not one of them. The film is unusual for the brothers, both in that it was released mostly on Netflix after a limited theatrical run and because it is composed of six short vignette stories rather than one overarching narrative.

In the first story, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” an outlaw named Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) rides alone on his horse through a dusty Western town, singing songs and playing his banjo as he goes. Along the way, he demonstrates his outstanding pistol-spinning skills and racks up quite a body count, all while addressing the viewer straight-on with a happy-go-lucky smile. “Near Algodones” begins with a cowboy (James Franco) attempting to rob a bank (which sits in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing but tumbleweeds and scrubby grass.) He is thwarted by the bank’s teller and sentenced to death by hanging. “Meal Ticket,” the third vignette, is one of my favorites and features a so-called “thespian orator and popular entertainer” (played by Harry Melling) who has no arms and legs. He and his impresario (Liam Neeson) travel from town to town and set up a performance each night, where the performer recites poems like “Ozymandias” and the works of Shakespeare. “All Gold Canyon” tells the story of a prospector (Tom Waits) venturing into the mountains in search of gold. “The Gal Who Got Rattled” focuses on Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan), who is part of a wagon caravan heading west to Oregon, where she plans to marry a friend of her brother’s. The film ends with “The Mortal Remains,” wherein five people in a stagecoach chat with one another on their way to Fort Morgan, Colorado.

While there are no explicit connections among the six stories, they all take place during the 19th-century settling of the West. Three of them feature a lone cowboy traveling on a horse. Some characters travel with intention, searching for someone or something. Some seem to travel aimlessly, the picture of the wandering cowboy. Many of them are alone and nearly all are lonely. In all of these narratives, people die. They are hanged and drowned; many of them are shot, one shoots themself. Most of our protagonists do not make it out alive. Death (a subject the Coens are familiar with) appears in each story and ties them all together. The brothers seem to be saying that no matter how we go, we will all get there eventually. Despite the often grim subject matter, the Coens, as is their wont, do not treat death with any sort of respect or solemnity. The film is the usual mixture of the dark with the comical, somber and cynical.

However, the comical and cynical veers right into the bizarrely silly, as if the brothers are parodying themselves. In “Buster Scruggs,” the titular character swaggers around in an all-white ensemble, complete with cowboy hat and boots, murdering people with abandon and always with a wide goofy grin on his face. As he brightly explains before shooting a room full of strangers, “Don’t let my white duds and pleasant demeanor fool ya. I, too, have been known to violate the statutes of man… and not a few of the laws of the Almighty!” In one scene, after Scruggs has violently killed a man named Surly Joe, he leaps up on the bar of the saloon and begins a rousing song in honor of the murdered man, with the piano player and the entire group joining in, slapping their knees and laughing with glee as the victim’s brother wails “I think we’ve lost him!” Later, Scruggs kills the brother too, but not before shooting off each of his fingers one by one in a shootout with an “aw, shucks” sort of mentality. It’s pointless killing, and Scruggs is not affected in the least by it. Much of the film is downright absurd; one character protects himself from being shot by covering himself with metal pans, crying “Pan-shot!” In one story, a man escapes being hung by a strange sequence of events, only to be caught and sentenced to hang again. As he stands on the gallows, he notices the man next to him wailing and sympathetically asks, “First time?” While the Coen brothers are known for their dark wit and cynical humor, these stories overdo it. It’s all too prepared, too staged; the comedy on display here is too self-aware to seem at all real.

The characters are similarly fanciful and cliché. A cowboy in white, a cowboy in black, and an ensemble of long-bearded, dirty, rag-clad people who look the very picture of poor Western. Few of them appear to have any depth to them beyond what their attire and accent suggests; there are cowboys, ranchers, and Indians, all dressed in what the Coens deem appropriate garb and with an exaggerated accent and laborious lines. When the stories end, the viewer is left not feeling much of anything — no real emotion or connection to the characters. It’s all a parody of itself, mocking the whole Wild West trope, but it just seems as if the Coens are making fun of and undermining their own work.

There are a few exceptions to this, and I especially enjoyed “Meal Ticket” and “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” The narratives are better with strong, compelling protagonists. Interestingly, my favorite performance of the film is not billed among the top cast or listed in the trailer: it is Melling as the orator in “Meal Ticket.” His only companion is his impresario, who doesn’t talk much. Together, they travel across the country, setting up a makeshift wooden stage in tiny towns, performing in front of smaller and smaller crowds as the snow begins to fly. They never laugh together or seem all that close; they sleep outside around a campfire, and money is a constant concern. Melling’s character does not speak unless he is onstage. As a result, he is either silent and pale, morosely communicating with Neeson only through minute changes in facial expressions; or he is animated, pink-cheeked and wide eyed, spouting the words of Shelley and Shakespeare clearly and forcefully. He never utters words of his own, so the character could easily become impenetrable. Yet, Melling makes the character rich and easy to read. His shifts in expression (a slight frown, widened eyes, wrinkled brow) exhibit so much and lead us to sympathize with him and his lonely existence.

The loneliness of the characters is amplified in the stark landscape. Nearly all of the film takes place outside, where characters are exposed. The landscape, for the most part, is miles of flat scrubby grass or dirt punctuated by an occasional mountain. A man on a horse, or even a caravan of wagons, seems like a tiny speck in such a vast space. Many vignettes include wide shots and sweeping vistas that exemplify how small our characters really are. In “Buster Scruggs,” the shots go from wide angle views of Scruggs on his horse, winding between mountains, to a creative shot from inside his guitar, looking out at his hand strumming. It’s a unique contrast between the vastness of nature and the tiny man with his guitar. The impression is that our tiny characters are sandwiched between a giant swath of blue sky and a sweeping expanse of flat earth.

Some of Buster Scruggs’ vignettes were promising and could even perhaps be lengthened into full films. (Who wouldn’t love a Coen brothers film focused on the lines “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away”?) But despite my high hopes for the film, it did not deliver. I miss the gritty violence and ingenuity of No Country for Old Men and Fargo, not this clever cliché of a Western. 

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