Movie Review : The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
* This review contains spoilers *
Filmmaking and deadpan humor legends Joel and Ethan Coen have been awfully quiet since their last Oscar run *. Their subsequent efforts Inside Llewyn Davis and Hail, Caesar! were critically praised (like everything they do) and tragically ignored by everyone who’s not a film nerd. It’s been a while since the Coen brothers were the talk of the town, which is a shame because they make highly enjoyable art films that you don’t need a fucking Cinematographic studies degree to understand. But they’re back. And The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is as witty, cagey and blissfully insensitive as Joel and Ethan Coen have ever been.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is structured like a short story collection, featuring six unrelated chapters that tell stories of the Old West. Not hiding their intentions one bit, the Coen brothers are transitioning between the stories by flipping the page of an actual book. There’s the eponymous first chapter, featuring a smiling and singing desperado (Tim Blake Nelson); a tale of a quite unlucky bank robber (James Franco); the metatragedy of an armless and legless British troubadour (Harry Melling) and three other ridiculously Coen-y tales of hard living in old times. Whether you enjoy or hate Westerns, it has very little to do with what you know of it.
The six short segments of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs have very little in common, except for one ominous, inevitable thing: death. The protagonists eventually all face a brutal and unfair death, whether or not they’ve lead a violent life. If you run tally: there’s are two murders, a hanging, a suicide, an impending heart attack and one that may or may not have already occurred. The segments are colorful, often quite funny and highly romanticized, but each progress towards their own inevitable and violent dead end. I believe the idea communicated here is that the Old West is an overrated idea. Things were not better, back then.
So, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is somewhat of an anti-Western. It has the aesthetic, but fights against its tropes of Old Testament justice and self-made success every step of the way. Perhaps the best example is Buster Scruggs himself. He’s a wanted desperado who doesn’t look on the run at all. He’s clean shaven, wears clean white clothes and doesn’t seem to have a worry in the world, because of his preternatural shooting skills. He’s not an Old West legend, he’s the idea of one. He hilariously turns one of his victims in a ballad after brutally murdering him, pretty much sealing his fate a couple minutes later.
Watching this segment, I couldn’t help but think that Buster Scruggs is probably a mix of how old, conservative men are perceived and perceive themselves. Anyway, he’s got a fitting ending that restores the aesthetic balance of the Old West. It remains dirty and miserable by weeding out the elements that’s filtered through a nostalgic lens. Quickly, I want to mention the segment Meal Ticket, which features the great Liam Neeson. It’s perhaps the less accessible, but most disquieting chapter of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. It’s a tragedy foreshadowed through a series of literary tragedies. It’s odd and uncomfortable in the best possible way.
I very much enjoyed The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Given that I was already sold on the Coen brothers beforehand, but their aggressive takedowns of Western nostalgia reminded me why I love their work so much. It ranks in the upper half of their legacy, a little below the masterpieces like The Big Lebowski, Blood Simple, No Country for Old Men and the tragically misunderstood Burn After Reading. I would favorably compare it to the likes of Barton Fink and The Man Who Wasn’t There in terms of lasting power and overall quality. The Coen brothers are indeed back. The good Coen brothers. Not the ones with weird niche obsessions.
* 2010, True Grit.