The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: a western magnum opus

Netflix’s ‘hands off’ approach to the financing of their original films can often wind down a road to mixed results; however, time and time again the streaming service will occasionally give green lights to truly enjoyable viewing experiences – and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs can without a doubt count itself among them.

The most recent directorial escapade from the now legendary Coen Brothers is an anthology of six western shorts – each of which are as unique, thought provoking and witty as one would expect from the directors of such classics like The Big Lebowski, Fargo, No Country for Old Men and True Grit to name a few. It would truly seem that the brothers have been leading up to a film akin to this for a while now, with the two proving their keen enthusiasm for the conceptual ‘western ‘ throughout their extensive film making catalogue which, despite ranging from a multitude of genres, have not only maintained themes of westerns but have also contributed neo-westerns as well as more traditional period pieces.

With ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’, each story is laced together as part of an illustrated book of the old west – as to the theme of the book we can only decipher in speculation. However, I believe that this is an ode to the true brutality and forlorn reality of the west, even in the first segment, which is a homage to the old sing-song westerns of the first half of the 20th century, is mired in a mirage of violence. This expose is not just reserved for the white man, I also realised that of the Native Americans (who’s depictions within westerns has shifted from ‘bloodthirsty injuns’ to ‘noble savages’) are similarly depicted as completely antagonistic and distant – locked in some eternal and brutal struggle for survival. However, aside from the overall tone of violence, each tale bears it’s own moral twist and message, which is what I truly loved about this film and has proven to be a great introduction to anthology films.

The first short, the eponymous ‘Ballad of Buster Scruggs’, is outlandish and comical – a stark contrast to the succeeding five ‘chapters’. We are introduced to a devil-may-care, crooning cowboy, Buster Scruggs, (Tim Blake Nelson) who, through song and slapstick violence, lays down the foundations of this anthology experience, cheerfully understating that ‘things have a habit of escalating in the west’ – a theme that we see repeat itself throughout the film as a whole. ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ chapter is an obvious homage to the camp and fantastical days of the golden age of the western, the eponymous Buster being a more morally questionable call back to the likes if Roy Rodgers.

Next, we are introduced to a nameless outlaw (James Franco) who lingers outside his target for plunder – a bank in the middle of nowhere. The opening scene of ‘Near Algodones’ in particular is an obvious homage to the works of Sergio Leone, with sweeping wide angles and personal close-ups as well as the familiar sound of a creaking windmill hearkening back to the opening sequence in ‘Once Upon a Time in the West‘. This chapter we witnessed Franco’s cowboy repeatedly escape the noose in a short but sweet throwback to Spaghetti westerns. Despite this, I feel it is undoubtedly the weakest of the six, the likes of ‘Near Algodones’ is rather forgettable.

With chapter number three we have one of my personal favorites: ‘Meal Ticket’. Here we follow a gruff and solemn impressario (Liam Neeson) who transports a young thespian (Harry Melling) with neither arms nor legs within a wagon that converges into a stage. From the get go this chapter feels cold, not just because it focuses on the duo travelling from isolated and snowy mountain communities but through the emotion of each character. From town to town less and less people come into attendance of the thespians performance, the likes of whom demonstrates aptitude in reciting classic poems to Lincolns Gettysburg address.  Here we are treated to a morbid fable of greed and of how genuine and intellectual content can easily be outmatched by that that is cheap and soulless.

In chapter four, another favorite, we follow a lonesome and aging prospector (Tom Waits) who’s longing for gold has brought him to an idyllic mountain valley. ‘All Gold Canyon’ is an adaption of a Jack London short story and throughout this portion of the film we are treated to, what I find to be, Carter Burwell’s (a frequent musical collaborator of the Coen Brothers) best work on this film. I believe this section was a personal favourite oddly, I found myself rooting for this rather bare-bones old man through sympathising his determination and grit to locate and harvest the submerged pocket of gold he sentimentally personifies as “Mr Pocket” with whom he talks to belie the loneliness of his situation.

However, with chapter five we find ourselves thrust into a tale of tragedy in ‘The Girl who got Rattled’, whilst this is not my favourite, this is certainly the strongest segment of the film. We follow a young woman (Zoe Kazan) who endures the trials and tribulations of being a woman in the old west, fares a blossoming romance and bears witness to the films best action sequence.

Finally, there is the macabre sixth segment – ‘The Mortal Remains’. In this dialogue driven scene, we are introduced to five characters, en route to a hotel in a stagecoach, who exchange their opinions on a variety of subjects. Whilst I will not divulge anymore lest spoil the allegory, I couldn’t help but draw parallels with the opening stagecoach scene from Tarantino’s ‘The Hateful Eight’ and how this would have made a significantly improved alternative.

‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ has been my first anthology film and I can say that it is a solid introduction to the genre. Through Coen Brother’s perfected usage of parody, dark humour and wit, this has been a total pleasure. It has clearly come out at an opportune time, with there being a sudden resurgence in interest of westerns (primarily resulting from the release of ‘Red Dead Redemption 2’). Whilst perhaps not an ideal viewing for those with a hatred for violence, the slightly morbid and tragic or westerns in general, ‘Buster Scruggs’ will leave you satisfied and hungry for more from Joel and Ethan Coen.

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