The Ballad of Buster Scruggs ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

The quarrel involving with the oversight and eventual formation of a gun slinging Western picture released in our modern political discourse, is a conclusion that is likely leading to the eventual collected ass cheeks clenching together all across the once racially segregated lands, because the real life history of the United States in the mid to late 19th Century is a period in time that was not as romantic or glamorous as we’ve seen on the small or silver screens with the likes of The Lone Ranger or the Fistful of Dollars trilogy. For those reasons particular, the Western genre has been classified ‘dead’ or ‘expired’ since at least the late 60’s early 70’s. But with today’s loving sendups/homages, there’s an understandable inclination to portray more dramatic, more earnest depictions of the wild west; choosing not to ignore its brutal heritage. If Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is meant to be a discussion in regards to slavery in the mid to late 1800’s, then Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is the discussion in regards to its living conditions.

An original Netflix film based on several short stories that the Coen brothers had been writing for the past 20 years finally seeking an opportunity to put them to good use, without much in the way of studio involvement as a means of making it more mainstream. Composed of six separate short stories, each of them focuses on the lives of various different people residing across the American Frontier.

The first spotlights the titular, arrogant character of Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), under the assumption that there ain’t no other gun or song that could possibly best his within his eyesight. Of course... it doesn't end well in his case.

The second, gives the audience a failed attempt at a bank robbery from someone (James Franco) who’s almost as in over his head as Scruggs was. Except here he faces quite a few additional indignities before he’s taken silently into that good night with a noose around his neck.

The third is a much more grim and bleak narrative compared to the two previous, as a dilapidated showman (Liam Neeson) struggles to produce much of a profit with his talent: a poetic artist (Harry Melling) with no limbs an only reciting verses from already well established political and biblical texts. Don’t expect much goodwill from this short, it is not the kind of set up made to be taken for granted.

The fourth is a little more lighthearted and optimistic compared to the last three, centering on an old timer (Tom Waits) determined to dig for a so called “pocket” of gold buried beneath the luscious landscape of the valley. Though things start to get a bit more tense when a younger man (Sam Dillon) shows up near the end to cause trouble for the older gentleman, the segment still finds to way to end on a more proud and humble note for our protagonist.

The fifth is by far the longest of the six, following a Ms. Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) and her yappy jack russell terrier, President Pierce, as they travel with the wagon train across the prairie as part of a plan for her to marry a business associate and settle in Oregon. Things get more disheartening for Ms Longabaugh, as her brother Gilbert (Jeffrey Mays) dies from cholera not a few days into the journey, President Pierce is causing too much noise for the folks traveling, and she’s unfortunately unable to pay off the young man who was hired to lead the two’s wagon in the first place. The two wagon train leaders, Billy Knapp (Bill Heck) and Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines) are more than willing to assist the traumatized widow (maybe less so for Mr. Arthur, given his aging enthusiasm), and sooner or later Mr. Knapp and Ms. Longabaugh are fortuitous enough to get to know each other whilst they travel across the sea of plains. The story reaches a point where the audience believes just enough that things will start to turn in favor of the two ending up together, but only for so long. It’s one of the more tragic and somber endings of the picture.

And the last focuses on a group of five passengers riding together in a horse drawn carriage awaiting to arrive in Fort Morgan, Colorado. Three of the passengers share an introspective discussion about their personal experiences in regards to how people collaborate with each other, the Trapper’s (Chelcie Ross) thought process is that humans are almost no different in attitude as any other animal or “ferrets or beavers” as he puts it. The presentable Mrs. Bejetman (Tyne Daly) discourages the Trapper’s judgements, and attempts to remain as the optimist in the discourse as she expects to be reunited with her husband in Fort Morgan - who hasn’t her seen in three years time. While that conversation is stirring, the Frenchman René (Saul Rubinek) interjects his opinion into the pile, as he questions the two’s moral quandaries about life, love, and the pursuit of happiness; retorting nothing but sly skepticism similar to that of the poker games he’s been acquainted with over the course of his time. The only two gentlemen who rarely partake in the exchange are that of Thigpen (Jojo O’Neill) and his partner Clarence (Brendan Gleeson), both of whom have been hauling around an... “interesting” piece of cargo, to put it mildly. The conclusion to these character’s debacle is very Rod Serling inspired if you happen to catch on to the total direction that the story and carriage are heading towards.

It’s an amalgamation that appears straightforward and without much significance or purpose, but it is the quality of the Coen Brothers writing that gives these seemingly unconnected tales flesh for its bones. What was just described above may seem like a series of unrelated series of events, but each story details underlying variations in regards to the central theme of death. Death, as a concept, can be represented in a variety of fashions: comedic, tragic, take your pick. The first story looks at the comical side of death, as our hero is under the purview that nothing and nobody could possibly do him in, only to be meet with unexpected, yet satisfying comeuppance. The second focuses on the humiliating side of death, the bank robber inches closer and closer to death’s door with a noose is wrapped around his neck and planted on his horse, but his punishment rarely seems to take effect and it only gets more and more ridiculous for him when his horse tries reaching for some grass to munch on: pulling on him in the process. The third features the cruel face of death, by the end, the showman thinks nothing wrong when he decides to cast aside his previous handicapped talent with that of a chicken that can do mathematics. The fourth recognizes how uncalled for death can be when the gold digger is shot in the back by the younger man, but it’s a possibility that death itself agrees with that sentiment as the gold digger miraculously survives his near-fatal attack and walks away with the gold he’s uncovered. The fifth discusses how death can be a tragedy, Billy Knapp and Ms. Longabaugh almost had a future together had it not been for a misinterpreted encounter involving her, Mr. Arthur, and an ensemble of attacking Native Americans. And the last is centered on a group of characters not taking life or death for granted: Mrs. Bejetman, optimistic about her chances and under the belief that everything will turn out alright in the end, Trapper is opposite of Mrs. Bejetman: pessimistic and coldhearted about people and their way of living, and lastly René, cynical towards interactions with others, thinking that everyone secretly has an ace up their sleeve waiting to play.

But of course all of this theming couldn’t be accomplished had it not for the marvelous and prodigious directing supplied by the Coens. Each short carries their own identity and aura to them, the production value and cinematography of the whole film is polished and beautifully shot, and each segment is nicely balanced never feeling like they overstay their welcome too much, with the notable exception to the fifth story where I feel its pacing could’ve been handled a bit better compared to how brief the previous four were (nothing more than a minor nitpick on my behalf).

It’s at this point, it’s clear over the years that the Coen Brothers are becoming more and more the definitive expert storytellers for the contemporary Hollywood western. The genre itself may be considered extinct as of today, but The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is still nonetheless an excellently written and well constructed piece of modern and western cinema.