[Film Review] The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

Jessica 2022-04-20 09:01:41

Title: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Year: 2018

Country: USA

Language: English

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Musical, Western

Directors/Screenwriters/Editing: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

Music: Carter Burwell

Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnel


Tim Blake Nelson

Willie Watson

David Krumholtz

Clancy Brown

James Franco

Stephen Root

Ralph Ineson

Jesse Luken

Liam Neeson

Harry Melling

Tom Waits

Sam Dillon

Zoe Kazan

Bill Heck

Grainger Hines

Jefferson Mays

Eric Petersen

Jonjo O'Neill

Brendan Gleeson

Saul Rubinek

Tyne Daly

Chelcie Ross

Rating: 8.3/10

Coen Brothers' frontier-set anthology film THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS consists of 6 vignettes. It is their first film shot digitally, and the result, lensed by Bruno Delbonnel, is simply breathtaking, those vibrantly saturated landscapes of vast nature never look more alluring . Often against a tiny human character in their center, and deploying “magic hour” effect to its utmost, the film comports itself as a picturesque masterpiece, even only for the views only, it is worth your while.

However, it is Coen Brothers, their trademark agglomeration of droll, dark humor and almost predestined violence is what hooks and stuns their audience. Among those 6 stories, several characters, like the happy-go-lucky titular gunslinger (Nelson, a songbird feigning vivacity but strained for his age) in the titular segment, or a luckless bank-robbing Cowboy (Franco) in “Near Algodones”, or a mousy maiden Alice Longabaugh (Kazan, retreading the Oregon Trail in MEEK'S CUTOFF, 2010, triumphantly animates a stock character with oceanic nuances and then breaks the mold with that shocking, expressionless vacuity) in “The Gal Who Got Rattled”, all come in for the shenanigans of kismet. In Coen Brothers' films, no one is safe and we audience, are conditioned to be on the qui vive for portents, there is always someone who is quicker on the draw,you can get away from the noose once, but not twice (“first time, hah?” gallows humor is golden!), a girl who is inured to passivity all her life, the only time she decides to take her life in her own hand, she plainly jumps the gun. That is Coen Brothers' ironic tenet of surviving in a primitive, unforgiving land. And if that is your cuppa, you are in for a treat!

Sometimes, one might propitiously pull through by the skin of his teeth the vilest attack (namely, “being shot in the back”), in the vignette “All Gold Canyon” that is faithfully based on Jack London's story, a hoary gold prospector ( Waits) can stay alive mostly owing to his extraordinary stamina to play possum, however, a similar tact taken by a seasoned wagon train guard Mr. Arthur (Hines, an optimal stoical horseback hero who totally changes one's unfavorable first impression when the crunch comes) in “The Gal…” only entrains unexpected repercussions.

Humanity is in its bleakest in the segment called “Meat Ticket”, a steely-looking Liam Neeson plays a raddled impresario, touring an uncivilized land with his artist, an limb-less young man (Melling), whose lilted elocution of classic literatures yields diminished returns. When he alights on a new meat ticket (a numerate chicken of all things!), what would be the fate of this poor sedentary creature? Is there any modicum of compassion left in him? Its ending leaves a bone-chilling pathos through which we could almost espy the Coens' knowing grin, welcome to the fathomless abyss of human vice.

The last vignette, "The Mortal Remains", is the most theatrical and abstract, nearly entirely sets inside a streaking stagecoach with its 5 passengers, two of them are "reapers" and the rest three represent all and sundry (a disreputable fur trapper, a God-fearing lady and a nihilistic Frenchman, each holds their distinctive perspectives dearly). They all head to the same destiny, and the unsubtle change of hue from fairly luminous to Stygian blue prefigures the finality that awaits them, a tribute to Victor Sjöström's THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE (1922) and superbly encapsulates all the previous yarns, about our eternal obsession with morality and its inevitability, the idea is warmed-over, but the Coens' can still rouse the gooseflesh.

Like another anthology chef-d'œuvre, Damián Szifrón's WILD TALES (2014), THE BALLAD OF… gives this unpopular form a major boost as a platform can balance multifaceted contents and tonal differentiations, even incongruity, if handled with diligence and some flourishes, of course. Expending the same feature-length, lucky viewers can always get more that what they bargain for.

referential entries: Kelly Reichardt's MEEK'S CUTOFF (2010, 6.6/10); Coen Brothers' TRUE GRIT (2010, 8.0/10); Damián Szifrón's WILD TALES (2014, 8.3/10).

View more about The Ballad of Buster Scruggs reviews

Extended Reading
  • Leopold 2022-03-28 09:01:03

    It's uneven, and it's a really bad part in the Cohen dimension. The difficulty of accumulating six short-form genre reversals is exponentially more difficult than maintaining one feature-length genre reversal.

  • Dee 2022-03-25 09:01:08

    Sing, dance, tell stories and kill people.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs quotes

  • Buster Scruggs (segment "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs"): Misanthrope? I don't hate my fellow man, even when he's tiresome and surly and tries to cheat at poker. I figure that's just a human material, and him that finds in it cause for anger and dismay is just a fool for expecting better.

  • Alice Longabaugh (segment "The Gal Who Got Rattled): Gilbert had a saying for any situation. A ready bit of wisdom. He was very certain.

    Billy Knapp (segment "The Gal Who Got Rattled"): He was a doughface?

    Alice Longabaugh (segment "The Gal Who Got Rattled): ...He had fixed political beliefs. All of his beliefs were quite fixed. He would upbraid me for being wishy-washy. I never had his certainties. I suppose it is a defect.

    Billy Knapp (segment "The Gal Who Got Rattled"): I don't think it's a defect at all. Oh no. Uncertainty. That is appropriate for matters of this world. Only regarding the next are vouchsafed certainty.

    Alice Longabaugh (segment "The Gal Who Got Rattled): Yes.

    Billy Knapp (segment "The Gal Who Got Rattled"): I believe certainty regarding that which we can see and touch, it is seldom justified, if ever. Down the ages, from our remote past, what certainties survive? And yet we hurry to fashion new ones. Wanting their comfort. Certainty... is the easy path. Just as you said.