Starring: Tim Blake Nelson, Stephen Root, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Grainger Hines
Director: The Coen Brothers
Mood: If you have to entertain someone who needs movies to be FILMS that make you think and have deep conversations about the meaning of life and you really just want to watch a good Western.
“We all love hearing about ourselves, so long as the people in the stories are us, but not us.”
The Englishman (Jonjo O’Neill)
I was having a DAY when I decided to rewatch The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
You know those exhausting, stressful weekdays that feel like they should be Friday but aren’t, and it’s like you’ve been working for weeks on end without a break? Anyway, I’d seen Buster Scruggs once a couple of years ago and only really remembered Tim Blake Nelson’s grinning face, so I was like “yeah, this is the feel-good Western I need.”
THIS IS NOT A FEEL-GOOD WESTERN!
The Coen Brothers’ collection of Western shorts is many things – dark, lyrical, observant, foreboding, musical, quotable, and full of gallows humour – but it’s not here for a good time.
What it expertly delivers is a random six-pack of existential excerpts, glimpses at the ‘real’ lives of those romanticized Western archetypes: the gunslinger, the bank robber, the shady traveling salesman, the prospector, the damsel in distress, and the undertaker.
And it does this so f*cking well that each of the stories fills you up like an entire movie. If Washington Irving wrote Grimm’s Fairy Tales, these would be them and I am here for it.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs begins with the title tale. Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) rides along, unhurried, entertaining the audience with a monologue so elevated and theatrical that it rivals that of Deadwood’s Calamity Jane.
Buster is decked out in white Western finery, grinning ear-to-ear, easily shifting from Shakespearean-level banter to country singing and back again. His kind face and gentle voice lull you into a calm contentment – then he shoots the shit out of everyone at a cantina.
In the blink of an eye you’re slammed with top quality Western action. There’s a brilliant move where Buster stomps on a poker table and a single board hits a man and makes him shoot himself in the face. But Buster’s upbeat narrative never breaks. It’s deliciously, laugh-out-loud satisfying.
Then an abrupt end catches you off guard. You realize the Coen Brothers came to play.
The next story, Near Algadones, is a stark contrast because the stoic outlaw (James Franco) has almost no lines. From there you face one tale after another that each poke and prod at the fabric of humanity:
- The extremely dark and somber tale of a traveling show in Meal Ticket
- The grunting, grumbling refrain of a resilient prospector (Tom Waits in All Gold Canyon)
- One woman’s stark and doomed voyage across the plains in The Gal Who Got Rattled
- The poetic and super literal conclusion of everything in Mortal Remains
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs gives you a huge variety of unique characters and performances. Each vignette brings an entirely new mood, new actors, new scenery, and new energy.
If you want graphic, violent shootouts, the first two stories have you covered. Grim, realistic frontier life? That would be story five. Survival and vengeance reign supreme in number four. Victorian performance art takes hold in stories three and six.
Being a Coen Brothers movie, music is a key part of the momentum. The sets range from breathtaking landscapes and rich, vibrantly detailed interiors to an entire story shot in an increasingly ominous carriage.
There’s no standout performance here, because there are too many!
- Tim Blake Nelson is full of country charm reminiscent of O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?, but handily taking the reins for the entirety of his bardic story
- Stephen Root never disappoints, and his role as the bank teller in Near Algodones is equal parts bumpkin and Ned Kelly-style ranger
- Harry Melling leaves Dudley Dursley far, far behind in a character so achingly tragic he belongs with the Bard
- Tom Waits comes alive in grizzly loner roles (hello, The Dead Don’t Die!), and here he’s given a massive space – and all the lines – to roam free within his character
- In Ralph Ineson’s brief but memorable appearance as a man-in-black posse leader, the English actor boasts a rumbling voice that’s up there with Sam Elliott and Trace Adkins
- Bill Heck and Grainger Hines are such a natural Western duo leading their wagon train that they feel right out of The Sacketts
Despite the fact that the grim plots are everything my teenage goth self could have wanted in a Western, and that Mortal Remains rivals the merry morbidity of any Tim Burton film – The Ballad of Buster Scruggs isn’t just SAD.
It’s got so many great moments of black humour, winks to the audience, and of course, no shortage of references to True Grit and other Coen Brothers works. There’s such a genuine reverence for the Old West, and for great storytelling.
Although it won Best Screenplay at the Venice Film Festival, and was nominated for several Oscars, Buster Scruggs is the lowest-earning Coen Brothers film at a mere $45,000 on its opening weekend. This is due to its severely limited theatrical run in favour of a primary release on Netflix.
Next time I watch it, I will definitely remember that it’s not a warm, fuzzy, Tom Selleck pick-me-up sort of Western. You want to be feeling mighty strong and sure of yourself when it asks – repeatedly – if you’re ready to meet your maker.
But it’s SO INSANELY GOOD that I will gladly suffer the tirade of emo thoughts that I’m sure will plague me in the weeks to come.