By Bradley Lane
Attempting to attach a genre or label to the Coen brothers’ new film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, is not only impossibly difficult, but to miss the point entirely. The film is an anthology from the writing and directing team behind some of the best films of last three decades (see Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country For Old Men, and Inside Lewin Davis).
It consists of six vignettes, separate from one another, but all bound together by a fictional book; an unknown character is reading throughout the film. These short stories range in tone from gut busting irreverent comedy to downright tragedy, but sharply shifting the tone is exactly what Joel and Ethan Coen set out to do. I am even more certain this is intentional due to the order and structure of the stories re-enforcing specific themes as the movie progresses.
These short stories range from a rather cheery song singing, gun slinging, outlaw handling cheaters at his poker table to a perilous journey west to Oregon to a travelling entertainment duo trying to make ends meet in the wild west. All these stories are told through the Coen brothers’ now almost idiosyncratic style. Carefully written and performed dialogue, detailed and motivated camera work and incredible performances all come together to cement the Coen brothers as filmmaking masters.
Speaking of incredible performances, Tim Blake Nelson, Liam Neeson, Zoe Kazan and nearly every cast member of the last segment gives unique and intricate performances. Tim Blake Nelson plays Buster Scruggs, the happy-go-lucky outlaw. He is a joy to watch on screen as he adds a cartoony quality to the seemingly harsh wild west. Simply put, no one could play this character but him.
Liam Neeson plays one half of the travelling entertainment duo, with a somber and quiet internal struggle playing out within himself. Zoe Kazan plays a fiercely independent woman left on her own to make the journey to Oregon while trying to navigate her brother’s untimely death and the debts he left to her. It is a very delicate situation that she portrayed with quiet but determined thoughtfulness. The last short story is all about introducing the characters and their interactions with one another, so naturally it depends on the performances of its actors. No one here drops the ball and it is their wonderful dialogue that drives the last leg of the film to an abrupt but entertaining end.
The west portrayed in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a place of opportunity and often beauty, but uniquely dangerous. It becomes clear very early in the film; your life in the wild west can come to an end very quickly via, gunshot, arrows, disease, etc. This danger gives the stories a sense of unpredictability that has been long missing in modern cinema. When a character is introduced it is clear that they might be a part of the story for the next five seconds or 20 minutes, making this a movie that deserves to be engaged with while viewing.
If this film falters at all it would be in the pacing of the stories. The third and fourth vignette slows the pacing down to a crawl, whereas the past two stories had been blistering quick. It is jarring but not enough to totally detract from the viewing experience.
Also worth mentioning is that The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was released into select theaters as well as simultaneously on Netflix. So, this movie can be enjoyed without leaving the comfort of your home! This is an insight into to the future of movies and how they might be released. As a fan of the theater experience I worry about this style of release but respect the desire to innovate and give the moviegoer options as to how they view newly released films.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a hilarious, sad, intriguing and exciting film that needs to be experienced to understand despite minor pacing issues.