Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Writers: Joel and Ethan Coen, Jack London, Stewart Edward White
Composer: Carter Burwell
Starring: Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Harry Melling, Tom Waits, Brendan Gleesan
Genre: Western, Comedy, Drama
Violence/Scary Images: Multiple characters are brutally shot and lose appendages: characters are hung at the gallows.
Language/Crude Humor: Two uses of s***.
Drug/Alcohol References: Characters drink in bars.
Sexual Content: No depicted physical romance, one character is implied to have an affair with a hooker, some discussion of sex.
Spiritual Content: Few direct references to religion.
Other Negative Content: Characters are brutally killed, characters murder, and torture one another for personal gain.
Positive Content: Fascinating existential muses about morality and cruelty.
There is no such thing as a bad Coen Brothers movie. That being said, they’ve come close a few times. Nobody is perfect, especially absurdists. While the director/producer pair has been responsible for masterpieces such as The Big Lebowski, Fargo, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man, Inside Llewyn Davis, and True Grit they have suffered a few indignities in their time. Ladykillers, for instance, is a tone-deaf dark-comedy with some wonderfully bizarre performances and moments of brilliance. Intolerable Cruelty is a flat, mean-spirited comedy about divorce lawyers and gives us some of the funniest lines I’ve ever heard in a comedy film. Even some of their notably decent films like O Brother, Where Art Thou and Hail, Caesar! feel scatterbrained, gimmicky, and unfocused at times.
All that said, I maintain that there is no such thing as a bad Coen Brothers movie. Their lesser works are magical and rare feats of modern filmmaking. They write with the tragic and comic sensibilities of classical dramatists, filter their vision of cinema through the lens of old Hollywood nostalgia, and forge a unique, deeply spiritual form of cinema centered on existential and absurdist themes about life and morality. Their newest film is very much a fascinating addition to this status quo. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was initially pitched as a six-part Netflix mini-series that was eventually trimmed down into a two-hour feature. Fascinating decision aside, the movie stands amongst the lesser Coen Brother films in that it lacks the more solid foundation that defines the masterpieces of their filmography. On its own, it’s a well done western anthology.
Anthology films are strange. On one hand, they’re subject to the same rules and foundations that define any writing endeavor. In cinema, there is a generally common runtime and series of expectations, however, anthology filmmaking can be quite strange in that they break those rules by constantly changing the tone, setting, story, and characters every several minutes. That’s not to say that this kind of storytelling can’t be accomplished but it comes with its own limitations.
In the case of Buster Scruggs, several of the six short stories that form the film’s series are part of a collection of concepts the Coen Brothers have been tossing around for a long time. These tidbits never got fully developed into feature films before eventually ending up here. In a sense, it’s the Coen Brother’s version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-Earth wherein many of his short story concepts were collected into print following his death. In this case, we’re merely enjoying leftover story concepts that could’ve been full films in their own right but in a more truncated form.
What makes a series of anthology stories work is a central theme. You might not enjoy every story but if they all build off the same themes, ideas, settings, or aesthetics the reader will stick around to continue reading through new brief stories. In a previous review on my older blog, I once described the Coen Brother’s previous western True Grit as a metaphysical argument between Man and God on the nature of vengeance. As I said then it’s a movie about the inner need for justice in the world clashing with the reality that our selfish natures make us poison our souls in the quest for it. Many just can’t be satisfied with God’s answer and let vengeance belong to a being capable of perfect justice.
Even in the Coen Brother’s secular vision of God as a bumbling, semi-competent fool, that version of God is still a better judge than we are. Much like True Grit the consistent theme through each segment of Buster Scruggs is a central drama between an authority figure and mortal men and women. Each posits a kind of absurd tragedy where the central question left in the wake of the character’s actions is how the events can be just. The actual experience of watching the film feels quite strange in that sense since the tone, length, pacing, and style of each of the segments wildly changes.
The first segment, dedicated to the titular Buster Scruggs feels like someone pitched “what would happen if Howdy Doody walked into a Sergio Leone western.” The answer is you have one Looney Tune-esque character dancing around, shooting people, and singing about his victories while the bodies of those he kills morbidly stack up around him. It reads like a pretty clear satirical takedown of the old romantic westerns where characters could be unquestionably good-hearted and pure. There’s a very clear consequence for his foolishness. From there on we get to explore different facets of the Old West including bank robbers, prospectors, traveling thespians, settlers, and stagecoach riders.
Each story is a quiet, bleak little ballad wherein the hopes and dreams of the protagonists come into conflict with some nigh-overly powerful authority figure who threatens to stop them. Given that the six stories don’t follow one another in any sort of narrative sense the movie takes the freedom involved to run the gamut of dark comedies, musicals and all forms of ultra-violent tragedy it can conjure up. Even in the lighter of the stories, however, violence is a constant and brutal force lurking around every corner. Most every major character ends up enduring some major form of loss, physical aggression, indignity, or violent death.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a strange animal. In the pantheon of Coen Brother’s filmography, it’s probably going to be remembered as a footnote. On its own terms, it’s one of the best films of 2018. The movie is textured, complex and fascinatingly delves through layers of Americana like a scalpal mining the western genre for its implicit meaning. Yet the experience of watching the film as it drags past the two-hour point will largely be lost on any audience wanting another Big Lebowski or True Grit. For cinephiles and fans of the Coen Brothers work, it’s a must see film that deserves a spot amongst the best of this year in cinema.