The Coen Brothers new film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, debuted on Netflix recently. Unique amongst Coen Brothers films instead of just one overarching narrative, instead it consists of 6 individual short stories within the one film. Rather than an overarching review, I decided to rank the segments as they are inconsistent in quality. If you’ve seen the film I’d love to hear which of the six segments is you favourite in the comments. Fair warning there will be spoilers ahead.
6) The Gal Who Got Rattled – We start with the penultimate story. Starring Zoe Kazan as a young woman who is travelling with a wagon train toward Oregon, this story is a romantic tragedy of sorts. The problem is that it feel very long, and isn’t particularly interesting. Zoe Kazan does her best, and is certainly a charming and likeable actress, but this script just feels a little devoid of charm, and her character doesn’t have a huge amount about her. Credit must certainly be given to Bill Heck as Billy Knapp who is excellent as Kazan’s love interest. But overall it just isn’t an inspiring story, and seriously drags, even the climax feels underwhelming.
5) All Gold Canyon – Probably the most positive of all the stories, indeed baring the final story where no one dies on screen this is the only one that our protagonist manages to survive. Following Tom Waits’ prospector as he discovers a canyon rife with gold this is one of the slower stories. We spend a lot of time following the process of discovering exactly where the gold is to be found. This does take a little while, and I question whether we need to see nearly the entire process. It’s hard to have much to say about All Gold Canyon, as it’s feels as though not much happens, but Waits is good, even if the story isn’t.
4) Meal Ticket – It’s a good job that All Gold Canyon was a more uplifting story, because it followed on from Meal Ticket, which is easily the bleakest and hardest to watch of all the stories. Whilst many of the stories are marked by potentially dark moments, there is always humour to alleviate them, not so here. Following Liam Neeson’s impresario and Harry Melling as a man with no arms and legs as the orator who earns him money, Meal Ticket sees them fall on harder and harder times as less people come out to see their shows as they head to more and more remote places. You can see where Meal Ticket is headed pretty early, and it feels like a little bit of a waste of Neeson’s talents as his impresario doesn’t get to show much range.
3) Near Algodones – Some people just have horrible luck. So it is with James Franco’s cowboy. A much more traditional western feel, especially following on from the incredibly Coen’s style opening story, there is still that thread of dark humour you’d expect from the Coen’s. The ridiculousness of the cowboy’s failed bank robbery, is only matched by the incredible bad luck he has to escape hanging, only to immediately be sent back to the Gallows, this time for something he’s innocent of. But there is a little ray of light as the story ends with him choosing to focus on the beauty of a woman he sees in the crowd, rather than his impending death. Franco is good in the story, and it’s engaging throughout. Following on from the titular story Near Algodones gave me great hope for the entirety of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, because it was such a strong start, it’s a shame that next three just didn’t live up to them.
2) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – The titular first story makes its way pretty close to the top of my list, principally because of a wonderful performance from a Coen’s frequent collaborator, the brilliant Tim Blake Nelson. But also because along with the final story it is the only one to really have the feelings of being something made by the Coen brothers. Following Buster Scruggs as makes his way through the old west with a cheerful attitude his quick draw, this story is a very upbeat and comedic affair. Filled with Nelson monologuing to the camera and a couple of cheerful song thrown in this is probably the closest to a traditional Coen Brothers piece. Particularly given what is quite a dark ending, but one that is played extremely comedically and set up a recurring theme of untimely death that is present throughout each of the six stories.
1) The Mortal Remains – The final story of the film sees five people sharing a carriage together as they make a trip to some unknown destination. Whilst two men, the English and the Irishman played by Jonjo O’Neill and Brendan Gleeson, know one another and have travelled the route many times before the other three are strangers. It becomes apparent over the course of this story that this is really the one tying the narrative thread of untimely death together as we realise that O’Neill and Gleeson’s characters as reapers escorting the souls of the dead to some afterlife. Whilst the other stories feature the deaths of major characters, here our characters have already passed away. The Mortal Remains benefits from the Coen’s brilliant dialogue and quick wit, as it runs the full gamut of the Coen’s repertoire. It’s funny, dramatic, and smart. It’s the story that will really make you think the most, and deserves its place atop my list.
Overall the film is split into three segments I was a big fan of, and two that I found interminably slow. So I would definitely say that Buster Scruggs is worth your time, particularly if you already have a Netflix subscription.