NYFF 2018 review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Joel & Ethan Coen)

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is not the Coen Brothers’ first rodeo with the Western. In 2010, True Grit was released to much acclaim and the film received ten Academy Award nominations. It only made sense for the brothers to return to the Western genre, and in 2017 it was announced that Netflix would be releasing a western mini-series directed by them, titled The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Without much news of its production or when it would be finally released in the months following, the mini-series was surprisingly announced to premiere at the Venice Film Festival as a shortened and tighter anthology film. Even though it could have been burdened by this truncated structure, the Coens have progressively and masterfully made a comedic yet harrowing look at the old west, reflecting its themes onto modern America.

As an anthology film, the movie is separated into six different parts. Each part has its own story which reflects on the state of today’s American society. In the first section, Tim Blake Nelson plays Buster Scruggs, a good-natured singling cowboy who constantly runs into trouble with outlaws and bounty hunters. Very comically, he wins every gunfight with ease, until a troubling final showdown where he is defeated. Tom Waits’ singing and the Coens’ framing consistently create a comic atmosphere, yet thematically the segment is concerned with the quick passage of life and the lack of regard for rules and regulations regarding guns. Rather similar is the second portion of the film, in which James Franco plays the Cowboy, who tries to rob a bank and instead gets thwarted by a crafty teller. Franco’s character is twice sentenced to death and on the second time meets his end. Although the first two parts play out comically, the Coens show a mindful eye for criticizing morality in regard to the death penalty and due process.

From there onward, the movie becomes more dour. Part three details the sad life of the Impresario, Liam Neeson, and his quadriplegic partner, the Artist, played by Harry Melling. The pair travel from town to town and each evening the Artist performs by soliloquizing famous poetry and speeches, ranging from “Ozymandias” and Shakespeare to the Emancipation Proclamation. Over time, the crowds dwindle as more popular entertainment becomes the rage, notably a chicken who can calculate easy mathematical problems. In this segment the Coens tackle many themes, but notably the treatment of the disabled and the rise of mass entertainment at the expense of the arts. Politically, this can be paralleled to the rise in mass political culture in the United States, where more classical and liberal discussion of policy has been replaced by Trump-era identity politics. It’s not a stretch to say this segment may be the Coens’ most critical of the current American political climate.

Segment four features Tom Waits playing the elderly Prospector who finds an uninhabited valley and sets off to dig for gold. With luck he finds the gold, and after much hard work he strikes it big. Sadly enough, a younger man appears and shoots the Prospector in the back after all the hard work is done. While the story doesn’t end at that point, the Coens are heavily critical of how society attempts to limit the benefits of the elderly.

Segment five, likewise, covers similar thematic ground. A young woman, Alice Longabaugh, played by Zoe Kazan, is encouraged by her brother to go to Oregon. Along the way, the brother passes and she must confront a challenging financial situation. In order to avoid financial duress and to keep her brother’s promises, she decides to marry Billy Knapp, played by Bill Heck. The two plan to settle in Oregon once they arrive and claim a large tract of land to start a new life. Similarly to part four, the segment is critical of economic hardships individuals face today. It’s hard for Alice to secure much economic freedom because of her status as a woman and likewise difficult for Billy to receive benefits as a single man.

The last part of the film takes place on a stagecoach with a group of five individuals who at times squabble and sing. We learn that two of the travelers, the Irishman, played by Brendan Gleeson and the Englishman, played by Jonjo O’Neill, are transporting a body in order to receive a bounty. As the journey progresses, the talk becomes darker and the lighting becomes eerier. When the group finally arrives at their destination, a hotel in a fort town, the film begins to resemble a gothic horror. This final segment doesn’t pose as many thematic statements as the prior five, but it ends the film on a much grimmer note, as if the Coens are warning that the country is becoming a darker place, devoid of the charm and comedy that the Buster Scruggses of the world once knew.

Beautifully shot by Bruno Delbonnel and scored by the masterful Carter Burwell, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is one of the great films of 2018. It may be scoffed at in some quarters because it’s an anthology, but this structure only helps to drastically show the changes in America as it heads down a darker path. Running a short 133 minutes for an anthology film, and premiering on Netflix, the movie should have a long shelf life at home and be an easy film to rewatch.