The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018): The Dark Humor and Despair of the “Old West”

      I am a huge Coen Brothers fan. “Fargo,” “Blood Simple” and “The Big Lewbowski” are some of my favorite films of all time and I love the desolation and farcical nature that is brought to so many of their dramas. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is certainly up there with those films, but doesn’t quite reach their level of perfection. Lately they’ve been doing more collaborations but this is wholly a Coen Brothers film as they wrote, produced and directed this film.

    “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a Western anthology that follows the tales of the gunslinger, the thief, the conman, the prospector, the cowboy and the bounty hunter. Each story is haunted with tales of death and destruction as all are faced with choices told in a storybook fashion. The name of the anthology also is the name of the first story within the anthology itself.

I’m judging each story individually before an overall take on the whole, since though they are each connected in theme, it is still an anthology film.

SPOILERS ahead

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is one of the happiest of the tales, as even though death and destruction happen, Buster Scruggs always has a song on his lips and his sheer joy rubs off on the events throughout the story. The story follows Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) the Gunslinger as he goes about from town to town, taking out people who challenge him. It finally all comes to a head when the Man in Black finds him and it is the duel he finally loses, that brings his story to an end. This one was great as a musical and I love Tim Blake Nelson’s energy as Buster Scruggs. He is fun and funny and even though is willing to kill always treats people as a good person first and always has a song on his lips. This is what makes his death tragic, but he does get to go to Heaven and gets angel wings, so his story isn’t entirely tragic…especially compared to the stories that come up later.

Score: 9.4 / 10. The cinematography is beautiful, the music is great and if we’d had more time with characters it could have been a perfect Musical Western.

Near Algodones

This story is comparable to “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” in how absurd it is, though it differs in that it doesn’t have the joy of that story. This is a story of desperation and lack of luck where every situation leads to a worse one. The story follows a young cowboy (James Franco) who is attempting to rob an isolated bank. He fails and is about to be hung by local law enforcement, when some Native Americans attack and leave him to die. Another band of thieves takes him and and they are caught and brought to town to be hung. This is the young cowboy’s second hanging and the one where he finally dies. This was the story that made me wish we’d gotten the Native story in these tales. They are all from the perspective of the privileged old west, which does have intriguing stories, but the Natives are only ever antagonists or in the case of this story, indifferent. Some of that tribe’s story could have been explored in this but instead Franco’s character just takes the long way around to finally getting hung.

Score: 7.5 / 10

Meal Ticket

This story was by far the most haunting and probably my most favorite. There are two characters, the Impresario (Liam Neeson) and his actor Harrison (Harry Melling). Harrison doesn’t have arms or legs and performs speeches and Shakespeare as the Impresario travels through towns to make money. We don’t know how they came about together but we soon see how little the Impresario doesn’t care about Harrison at all leading into a tragic ending, where the Impresario buys a chicken who can do basic math and it is implied he drops Harrison into the river. This is after Harrison has stopped bringing in the money he once did. Liam Neeson plays the Impresario and is wonderfully creepy. He reminds me of a much worse version of Fagin from Dickens’ “Oliver” and seeing just how much he disregards Harrison is powerful as well as Harrison’s fear as Harrison only acts through his eyes and the acting he puts into the shows. This story is all about exploration and despair and how powerless the only good person (Harrison) is in a world that sees him as a burden or something to be exploited. It is a tragedy and easily the best story of the bunch.

Score: 10 / 10.

All Gold Canyon

“All Gold Canyon” is a film focused on the beauty of nature and the ravings of an old prospector (Tom Waits) searching for gold in the wilderness. I really enjoyed this story as so much of it is Man v Nature as the prospector goes through the process of finding gold flakes and eventually hitting the gold but finding himself attacked by a young man who was watching him as he is no longer facing the wilderness but facing the selfishness of humanity. He ends up killing the man after he outsmarts him and buries him in the small hole he created in his search for the gold. It is a really great story with the only problem being how distracting the CGI deer is. There was no reason not to use a real deer given how beautiful the landscape is and the owl looked real at least. If there hadn’t been the deer and bad CGI this story would have been perfect for what it was. I was rooting for the muttering prospector who talks to himself, I wanted him to find the gold and I was happy when he did and survived.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

The Gal Who Got Rattled

“The Gal Who Got Rattled” is the weakest of the stories and brings everything else down. There are far too many characters, none of them are really likable or interesting and it has nothing profound to say and lacks a coherent point. The story follows Alice (Zoe Kazan) who is traveling west with her brother to marry. Her brother dies along the way and we learn she’s been conned and now doesn’t have any money. One of the cowboys falls in love with her and that goes nowhere, and later she is with her brother’s dog when they are attacked by Natives and she ends up killing herself when the leader of the caravan says she should do it cause it is a better fate than getting captured. This one has the same problems as “Near Algodones” in how the Native Americans only exist as a threat and also in that we never get to really know any of the characters. They are doing things but I couldn’t really tell you who they are. This story is cinematically beautiful, but when that is the only thing I’m saying as a pro, you kind of failed.

Final Score: 6 / 10

The Mortal Remains

“The Mortal Remains,” is also one of the best stories of the bunch. This is a story that has an element of magical surrealism to it as for a good portion of the film I thought all the characters might be dead. The story follows 5 characters in a carriage on their way to Fort Morgan in a stagecoach. The conversation unfolds as we learn about our characters and their relationships. From an old religious lady who is coming to see her husband, the Frenchman who says that her professor husband was probably cheating on her, a trapper who has no internal editor and is looked down on by the lady for how unclean he physically is and the Irishman and Englishman who we learn at the end are Bounty Hunters. There is an heir of foreboding through the entire conversation and outside it is dark and covered and mist, this made me think of the afterlife and if they were all being transported their. The fact that the carriage doesn’t stop until they reach Fort Morgan played into this. We see this theme in the hotel they stop at has a stairway of light leading up that the bounty hunters carry the dead body up and in the carriage driver whose face we never see and is always moving. My favorite characters were the bounty hunters as the others with them were a bit bland. We learn their backstory but they are more interesting in how they reacted to their situation and the bounty hunters. Their fear and not knowing what to do made them more compelling than the backstories they shared, which made the story work.

Final Score: 9 / 10. Solidly great. Would have been better with more interesting characters outside of the bounty hunters.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is well worth your time if you are a Coen Brothers or western fan. This film captures so much of what works and doesn’t work about westerns and I loved the absurdity, detachment and sorrow that the Coens bring to their films. This is a beautiful anthology and I would have watched more stories if it had been longer. When it is great it is perfect and when it is flawed it is still enjoyable. Not many anthology films can claim that, as average is easy. This was an amazing film and definitely one of my favorites, though it might not make my Top 5 at the end of the year. This year is a year of steep competition and the things that bring the anthology down are enough to keep it from landing higher up on the list of greats this year. Still, this is a film I highly recommend. Check it out.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10 The bad stories bring it down, though the great stories make this score still very high.

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