Released November 9, 2018 (Limited Theatrical Run) and November 16, 2018 (Netflix Release)
Rated R (Some Strong Violence, Some Language)
2 hr. 13 min.
Directed, Written, Edited, and Produced by Ethan and Joel Coen (O Brother, Where Art Thou?; No Country for Old Men)
Cinematography by Bruce Delbonnel (Amélie, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince)
Music by Carter Burwell (True Grit; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)
Also Produced by Megan Ellison (American Hustle, The Sisters Brothers) and Sue Naegle (Family)
Starring Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?; Colossal), James Franco (127 Hours, The Disaster Artist), Liam Neeson (Schindler’s List, Taken), Harry Melling (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, The Lost City of Z), Tom Waits (Seven Psychopaths, The Old Man and the Gun), Sam Dillon (Boyhood, Memoria), Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks, The Big Sick), Bill Heck (The Amazing Spider-Man 2, The Alienist), Jonjo O’Neill (Defiance, Constantine), Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges, Calvary), Saul Rubinek (Unforgiven, The Family Man), Tyne Daly (The Enforcer, Spider-Man: Homecoming), and Chelcie Ross (Major League, Basic Instinct)
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a six story anthology film, with each segment being a completely separate story, not connected with any of the other parts, but each is also directed by the Coen brothers and concerns the same, central theme.
We all ride to our deaths, that much is certain. We can beg the coach driver to stop as long and as loud as we wish, but he never will. It’s company policy.
While the charlatans outside and within entertain us, Death sneaks up behind us, to bring us to the life beyond this one.
In the segment “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” character Billy Knapp (Heck) philosophizes, “Uncertainty. That is appropriate for matters of this world. Only regarding the next are we vouchsafed certainty. I believe certainty regarding that which we can see and touch, it is seldom justified, if ever. Down the ages, from our remote past, what certainties survive? And yet we hurry to fashion new ones. Wantin’ their comfort. Certainty, it is the easy path.”
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a film about death, in many of its forms, and what better way to discuss life than through discussing death, and what better way than in America’s greatest genre, the Western, as the West was a gorgeous yet deadly place, much as life is itself. This movie is also a delight, strangely enough, because it shows, beyond its themes, in six segments a few different ways the Western genre can help us illustrate life, and it displays a few different ways in which the Western genre can bend, whether that be through standard tropes, the subversion of such tropes, or through original elements.
Around the Billy Knapp quote above, I began to see where the Coen brothers were actually taking us with their storytelling here. Then, in the final segment, “The Mortal Remains,” they more or less outright state it, in the words of The Englishman (O’Neill):
“You know the story, but people can’t get enough of them, like little children, because, well, they connect the stories to themselves, I suppose, and we all love hearing about ourselves, so long as the people in the stories are us, but not us. Not us in the end, especially.”
It’s not for nothing the movie begins with the segment “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” and it’s not for nothing the film is entitled the same. Buster (Nelson) has lived his life to the full, making the best of it and being cheerful in the face of a potentially overwhelmingly harsh world. Sure, he’s made mistakes, but he tries to get along with his fellow man, and he tries to do what’s right and proper. He’s clever, too, and uses his God-given wits to survive. Yes, in the end, someone better takes his place, but that’s just how life goes. Life isn’t about living forever, it’s about making of life what we can while we’re here.
The film is both dark and hilarious, both contemplative and thrilling, often all at once. Watch The Ballad of Buster Scruggs for the Coen brothers’ painstaking attention to detail, like the effort they put into recreating those old, classic, short story, compilation volumes. Watch Buster Scruggs for its grand cinematography from the ever-excellent Bruno Delbonnel. Watch it for its sweeping score by Carter Burwell. And watch it to see a wide variety of skilled acting performances. But more than anything else, watch Buster Scruggs for its themes, as with any good work of art.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is much more a work of art than I imagined it would be when I first sat down to view it.
I’m going to give The Ballad of Buster Scruggs a 94%.
I mostly liked The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, but I have to admit I found it to be a little inconsistent. I really liked Tim Blake Nelson’s and Tom Waits’s segments, but the other four were either not fleshed out well or had pacing problems. I think it might be a consequence of attempting to tell six stories in a 133-minute timespan. The inconsistent quality seemed to be reflected in the audience I saw the film with; they were lively throughout the first two segments and quiet as church mice during the remaining four. Nonetheless, I did enjoy watching it, and though I wouldn’t be quick to recommend it, I could easily see Coen brothers fans loving it.
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I can understand that. But I didn’t have a problem with the stories being different. They’re tied together by a central theme, and the movie perfectly replicated, in many ways, the experience of sitting down with a compilation volume of short stories from one author, the kinds of volumes regularly published in the mid-1900s, and of which I have consumed a good many.
I didn’t really have a problem with the stories being different either. As I said, I really liked the first and fourth segments, which were indeed quite different. It’s just that I felt the film had periods of extreme highs and extreme lows, and to me, it balanced out to about a 6/10 or so (which, to be clear, is still above average on my rating scale).
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I can understand that.