THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS is the latest release by the Coen Brothers and just so happens to be part of Netflix’s original catalog. The amount of talent represented is noteworthy. The writing is excellent. But, at the end of the day, the whole piece falls weirdly flat. Fair warning: some spoilers ahead.
The structure is non-traditional as well. Instead of a flowing narrative, the film is divided into six unrelated vignettes and uses the concept of a short stories in an anthology as a framing device. Each story is preceded with an illustration, as well as a small bit of text preceding and ending as if one was reading a story.
The vignettes start with story of a singing cowboy (the eponymous Buster Scruggs) as he makes his way through the Old West. The story is a weird juxtaposition of songs with brutal violence, including one part where Scruggs kills a menacing Curly Joe (a gravely under-utilized Clancy Brown) with Curly Joe’s own gun. At the end, however, Scruggs is undone when a different, younger singing cowboy entered the picture. As an added bonus, the cowboy who ends up out drawing Buster enters playing a harmonica, bringing to mind Harmonica from ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. The entire piece is meant as a shout-out to the singing cowboy, with Roy Rogers probably being the most famous example.
“Near Algonodes” follows, where James Franco is an unnamed cowboy looking to score big with a bank heist. He’s no match for the teller, however, and finds himself strung up to be hanged. His hanging is interrupted by a Comanche war party, and he finds himself in the company of a drover who informs hm that he’s now the drover’s sidekick. Only problem is, the cattle have been rustled, and the cowboy finds himself with a noose around his neck again. Again, there are elements that call back to other Western movies that highlight outlaws such as BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, and the shooting down a hanging man puts one in mind of the ending of THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the literal gallows humor when the cowboy turns to the weeping man next, also to be hanged, and asks if it’s his first time.
“Meal Ticket” could very well be the most problematic section of the film. An older man (Liam Neeson) runs a mobile theatre, with its soul attraction being an armless and legless young man with a voice turned to oratory (played by Harry Meeling- better known in the role of Dudley Dursley from the HARRY POTTER films). The overall piece plays it sympathetically for the most part, with the old man taking care of his star, making sure he is fed and clothed and otherwise cared for. However, when the crowds start coming and another opportunity presents itself, the old man shows just how callous man can be in the worst sort of way. At least one person I know of gave up on the film at this point, feeling that the general theme running through it is “ALL about how much life sucks.”
“All Gold Canyon” was easily my favorite segment, starring as it does the incomparable Tom Waits. Interestingly, Waits inhabits the segment almost entirely alone, except for the introduction of another man halfway through… who has no speaking roles. Easily the strongest segment of the six, it is also the one that is the most uplifting, showing that perseverance (and, well, maybe being a bit touched in the head) go a long way to getting ahead. The fact that Waits fills up the space with his presence and voice also certainly helps.
“The Girl Who Got Rattled” finally puts the spotlight on someone other than a white male. Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) is on her way to Oregon with her brother where he hopes to see her married to an associate of his. Of course, they have to get there, and that means a wagon train journey. Alice suffers one setback after another, including her brother dying unexpectedly, the loss of any money she might have had, and her brother’s dog running off. She does, however, catch the eye of one of the guides travelling with the wagon train. He proposes to her, as he is tired of a life in the saddle and would like to settle down instead of turning into his partner, a taciturn man who seems to have lost all care and compassion. Sadly, she comes to a tragic turn by the end. What didn’t sit right by me with this piece was that there were six vignettes and all of them focused more on men than women. With this piece, which was a better chance to focus on a woman, by the end of it the question was how the older partner was going to break the news of Alice’s death to his partner and with that being the pressing concern. Yes, the terrible thing happens to a woman, but the question is how are the men going to deal with this problem as opposed to keeping the focus on the woman for a change.
“The Mortal Remains” ties up the film, with four men and one woman sharing a coach ride in the dark. What follows are a series of discourses on the danger of isolation, the nature of love, whether humanity can be divided into different groups, and what it is like to watch a person die. Given that it was an extended piece of dialogue with little actually happening, it was the one I was the least impressed with (though Brendan Gleeson singing was a rare treat). There’s some allusion that there might be some supernatural element at play (the Irishman and the Englishman describe themselves as Reapers), the whole tone was more philosophical discourse as opposed to anything as vulgar as a Weird Western.
Overall, I was disappointed with THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS. Disappointed in the focus of the stories (come on, the Old West wasn’t quite that white, folks). Disappointed that the only Native Americans seen were either plot devices or perpetrators of unexplained and unexamined violence. Disappointed that given the wealth of stories out there to tell, these are the stories that the Coen brothers decided to put their energy behind. In many ways THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS feels like a love letter to Westerns as a genre, and more divorced from the reality of what the West was like than anything post-DEADWOOD has a right to be.
 Hat tip to Cynthia Ward who also noted “the weirdness of the whiteness” of BALLAD.
 Matt Spencer noted the theme of the entirety could be “Don’t fuck with the crazy old man” and I have to say there’s more than a bit of truth to that.