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Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

Directed by: Ethan Coen and Joel Coen

Premise: An anthology of six stories set in the American Frontier.  

What Works: The western is an important part of the Coen Brother’s filmography. That’s obvious in films like No Country for Old Men and 2010’s True Grit but the influence of the western can be seen in the Coen’s other films like Fargo. The filmmakers’ affection for the western is obvious throughout 2018’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and in particular their fondness for the films produced during the studio era when the genre was at the height of its popularity. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an anthology picture with each story varying in its scenario and subject matter but unified by the Coen Brother’s distinct wit and filmmaking style. The anthology format lends itself well to the Coens who have always been more interested in character and genre than in narrative. Among the strongest segments of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is the titular story about a gunslinger. Buster Scruggs is played by Tim Blake Nelson and he gets the Coen’s dialogue in a way that few actors have. This segment is brutal but funny with witty dialogue and grotesque physical comedy. It’s also a musical with tunes that are well performed by Nelson. Also impressive is “All Gold Canyon” in which a prospector, played by Tom Waits, searches for gold. Waits is on his own for most of this segment and it is impressive how the filmmakers find drama with very little obvious conflict. Another standout segment is “The Gal Who Got Rattled” which dramatizes the plight of a pair of siblings as they journey across the frontier as part of a wagon train. This story has quite a range of emotions and impressive scope to its story and depth in its characters. 

What Doesn’t: As an anthology, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs misses an opportunity to present a greater range of tones and styles. Each segment generally has the same look and feel and a similar filmmaking approach. That makes sense since this movie was written and directed by the same pair of filmmakers unlike other anthologies like The ABC’s of Death or Twilight Zone: The Movie in which each segment was created by a different filmmaker, each with his or her own distinct style. The ability to experiment is one of the strengths of the anthology format but the Coens stick to their established filmmaking style.

DVD extras: Currently available on Netflix.

Bottom Line: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a fun western anthology. It is extremely entertaining and the Coen’s distinct filmmaking style makes the material accessible to viewers who wouldn’t ordinarily watch a western.

Episode: #733 (January 13, 2019)