AFI Fest Review: With ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ the Coen Brothers Play by Their Own Rules

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

A lot of my fellow critics have tried to define the filmography of the Coen Brothers over the years. They’ve been called misanthropic. They’ve been called nihilistic. They’ve been called a variety of things as if there’s some kind of concrete definition to their impish approach to storytelling. The reality is the Coen Brothers aren’t easily defined. They’re filmmakers who can be brutal, absurd, stylistic, and classical. It’s not often that all of these elements collide in the same film from the brilliant brothers but that’s the case with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the Coens’ anthology film comprised of six shorts in the old west. Between all six of its segments The Ballad of Buster Scruggs encapsulates so much of the Coen Brothers approach to cinema as it’s brutal, absurd, stylistic, and classical.

The stories unfold as an unseen person is flipping through a book of western tales sharing the title of the film. It’s a clever and classical way to tie these various tales together. The first segment shares the title of the film as Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) traverses the barren landscape near Monument Valley on his trusty steed Dan while strumming his guitar and signing songs of his various exploits. Buster Scruggs is an outlaw, though he takes exception to being dubbed “The Misanthrope” on his wanted poster, breaking the fourth wall to explain the issue he takes with the moniker. It’s safe to assume that this is the Coen Brothers employing their playful side and speaking directly to the countless critics who have dubbed them the same thing. This segment is wildly absurd, featuring picturesque scenery, brutal violence, meta commentary, and musical segments. It’s easily the most crowd-pleasing of the film’s segments. Though nothing that follows strikes the exact same tone, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs establishes the themes of fatalism that will run throughout all of these stories.

The following segment has an outlaw (James Franco) attempting and failing at a bank robbery when the clerk (Coen Brothers favorite Stephen Root) fights back. The outlaw awakes the fight sitting on a horse with a noose on his neck. But before he can be executed the Comanche ride in and kill everyone but the outlaw, whose left on the horse with the noose still resting on his neck leaving him in limbo between life and death. Here we find a short that is darkly comic but also operating with a gut-wrenching tension, furthering the film’s fatalistic themes.

It’s the third segment of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs that may be the darkest of them all. Liam Neeson plays a man who travels the countryside with a young, limbless man (Harry Melling), who we are led to believe is his son. The stagecoach they travel in unfolds into a stage, and the young, limbless man regales the locals with the poems of Shelley and the speeches of Lincoln. The two survive on the coins collected at the end of the show. As the coins become fewer and fewer, Neeson’s impresario must devise a way to gather more money. This particular segment, entitled “Meal Ticket,” has a number of twists and turns along the way before culminating in a shocking, heartbreaking conclusion.

In a role that he has seemingly aged perfectly into, Tom Waits plays a grizzled prospector searching for gold in a lush, green valley for the film’s fourth segment. Speaking to himself, the prospector searches the green fields along a river for a pocket of gold hidden beneath the earth. This segment highlights the seclusion of the prospector and the tireless efforts taken to mine for gold. But this short wouldn’t fit into the whole of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs without some kind of horrific twist and turn, and the Coen Brothers don’t hold back here as at this point it really begins to seem that they’re just having a blast toying with the audience.

“The Gal Who Got Rattled” is the fifth segment, and once again the Coen Brothers display a deft balance between dry comedy and tragic drama. Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) is travelling west with her brother to start a new life. On the wagon trail, her brother dies from cholera and she’s left with a debt to young man accompanying the wagon and her brother’s yappy dog. Alice’s growing troubles are alleviated by Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), who is running the wagon trail with his partner Mr. Arthur (Granger Hines). On the trail, Alice and Billy form a bond that slowly builds towards a romantic interest. It’s seems as if all of Alice Longabaugh’s troubles are about to be left behind on her trail to the west…and then the Coen Brothers kick the audience in the gut with one of the more gasp-worthy twists in a film with numerous gasp-worthy twists.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs concludes with a segment that many might find anti-climactic, which I would argue is the point. “The Mortal Remains” sees a quintet of travelers sharing a small stagecoach. There’s a woman (Tyne Daly), a trapper (Chelcie Ross), a Frenchman (Saul Rubinek), and across from them an Irishman (Brendan Gleeson) and a man who goes by the name Thigpen (Jojo O’Neill). At first this claustrophobic trip through the night seems rather frivolous, with plenty of absurd banter going around but mostly led by Chelcie Ross’ hilarious turn as the trapper. Then once the occupants of the stagecoach realize the occupation of the two men sitting across from them it takes an unsettling turn. A sense of dread takes over and the unease of this stagecoach ride grows until it reaches its final destination. Despite its lack of violence and driven entirely by dialogue, “The Mortal Remains” maintains the thematic fatalism of each of the preceding shorts, and concludes The Ballad of Buster Scruggs with an unusual short that is deviously playful.

Early reaction to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs had many remarking that this is a “minor” film by the Coen Brothers. Listen here, bub, there are millions of artists who would kill to make something this good be considered minor. Here’s an anthology film in that encapsulates the entire career of those mad genius sibling filmmakers. It jaunts between tones and styles with ease. The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel is lush and gorgeous. The score by Carter Burwell is rustic and rousing. I could see how some might think this film is a little disjointed in the same way many saw Hail, Caesar! as that, but there’s much more to behold with both of these films upon repeat viewings, stylistically and substantively. More so than usual, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs sees the Coen Brothers toying with audience expectations, resulting in a film that is all over the map and always completely unpredictable. I have a sneaking suspicion that those who consider The Ballad of Buster Scruggs to be minor will be humming his tune for years to come.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
  • Overall Score
4.5

Summary

Six short stories in the old west collide in the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which sees the sibling filmmakers weaving an array of tales that cover their diverse range of talents as it blends comic absurdity with bleak drama connected by a streak of fatalism.

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