Let’s get this straight: don’t believe the noise around The Ballad of Buster Scruggs being the Coen brothers’ worst. It is somewhat difficult to decide on where it lies in the work of the Coens, due to the diverse and brilliant nature of their catalogue, but I am comfortable in saying that this is easily the equal of their other two Westerns: No Country for Old Men, and the exquisite remake of True Grit. It is, then, among the very best Westerns produced in the 21st century. I have seen quite a few Westerns, and it is a rare thing indeed to see a picture as wise about life and death, as devastating and tragic, and most of all, as knockdown funny, and as filled with so many well-drawn and acted characters.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs comprises of six shorts that range from downright hilarious to tragic, to moving and philosophically profound. This should not surprise anyone who has followed the career of the Coen brothers, who along with artists like Paul Thomas Anderson, almost always produce something of great worth. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is no exception, and while I admit the difficulty of placing it above or below their very best work (O Brother, Where Art Thou?; Fargo; The Big Lebowski), I have no problem with comparing it to other work in the same genre. As a result of the sublime Rockstar game Red Dead Redemption 2, I have been on a Western Odyssey these past many months and of all the amazing Westerns that I have seen, I might just love this movie most of all. Considering the diverse and high-quality Westerns that I have seen, this is really saying something. Yes, I loved the Coens’ new picture as much as Broken Arrow, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and even as much as Deadwood. Not always in the same way of course, but when we speak of quality, we must consider The Ballad of Buster Scruggs to be among the same elite category.
The anthology nature of the film might suggest to the viewer that this movie is merely a collection of stories that are not unified in theme or substance, but from the surreal and comedic opening to the meditative and beautiful closing, this is just as whole and unified as any of the Coens’ work. This is something that surprised me, given that anthology films are rarely cohesive or on the same page. It helps of course that all of the shorts were directed, written and produced by the same creative team, unlike say the horror collections V/H/S and The ABCs of Death. The themes that run through The Ballad of Buster Scruggs are most of all concerned with the harsh and unforgiving nature of the Wild West. No-one gets an easy go of things, no matter how pure their heart or intentions. Violence and death have a constant presence during the movie, and the deeply ironic and tragic nature of things reminded me quite a lot of the bleak and spiritual quality of Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James. It also recalls the slow reveal and episodic nature of the supremely dark Brimstone, directed by Martin Koolhoven; though, in this writer’s opinion, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs executes things in a far more rewarding way.
It is difficult to pick out one favourite short, as the film hangs together remarkably well, and each has their place in the story. I have to, though, single out some moments. The songs throughout the film alternate from seriously chuckle-inducing to oddly sinister to just downright beautiful. Tim Blake Nelson, who of course did a wonderful job singing in my personal favourite Coen brothers picture—O Brother, Where Art Thou?—turns in a ridiculously amusing performance. The song about cowboy’s trading their spurs for wings is big time funny and oddly touching. Liam Neeson, who turns in one of the best performances of his career, sings the Irish song “Weela Weela Walya” about a woman drowning a baby, which foreshadows the pragmatically evil actions of his character.
Let’s talk about that cast because this film features a wonderful collection of acting talents. The most welcome surprise was seeing James Franco as a would-be bank robber, not once but twice convicted of crimes that demand a hanging. I have always liked Franco from his appearances in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man pictures, and I felt kind of proud that he got such a role in a Coen brothers movie. Prouder, even, that he did such a good job. Tom Waits! Good God, what a character! I was so happy to see him here, as he is a man who is tremendously suited to the Western. I have been a big fan of Waits for many years, and I was particularly happy to find that he also brought a little bit of his musical genius to the proceedings. Waits’ short “All Gold Canyon” has many of the same insights as John Huston’s classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, reflecting the chaos and danger to be found in trying to tame the natural world.
If I had to pick just one short, it would be “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” This is a straight-up, heartbreaking story of a woman who is crossing the country in the hopes of finding a husband, and accidentally finds a fiancé on the road. I hoped against all hopes that this would have a happy ending, but I was watching the wrong film to expect such a happy outcome. I won’t ruin the specifics, but let’s just say that I was in tears by the ending. The poetic nature of the tragedy of finding someone you might just love before it’s ripped away from you reminded me of Cold Mountain, though in my opinion did it even better than that movie. A special shout-out to Zoe Kazan, who reminded me a bit of Hailee Steinfeld from that other great Coen brothers picture, True Grit. You immediately relate to her and wish her well, which makes her sad ending all the more upsetting.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a sublime bit of work. Do not be worried about the usual lack of thematic connection that sometimes crops up in anthology films; this is a unified, emotionally complex picture that rewards from start to finish.