Film Review: “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” Sings an Uneven Tune

Film poster: “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Ethan and Joel Coen, 2018) 2 out of 4 stars.

A collection of 6 short Westerns from Ethan and Joel Coen, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is nothing if not uneven. Though infused throughout with the brothers’ trademark whimsy, the movie bounces around in tone and quality. Some stories are better than others, but even the best are merely pleasantly diverting, while the bad are distractingly mediocre. At least it’s up on Netflix, which means you can scroll past the parts you don’t like.

First, there’s the title piece, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” in which Tim Blake Nelson (The Institute) plays Buster as a singing troubadour of a gunslinger who, with wit and a merry tune, leaves a path of gleeful (and bloody) destruction in his wake, until the day comes when he may have met his match. Filled with guts and glory, the sequence has its moments, but is ultimately overbearing. Time to move on, lonesome cowboy.

Next, we have “Near Algodones,” starring James Franco (The Disaster Artist) as a would-be bank robber whose ambitions outstrip his skills. This story works a little better, its wistful mood a good complement to the humor of the situation. Bad things happen to bad (and incompetent) people, and so it goes.

Liam Neeson in THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS ©Netflix

In “Meal Ticket,” the Coens finally hit their stride. With Liam Neeson (Silence) as a tired not-quite impresario who travels from mining town to mining town with his freak-show act, an armless and legless man, played by Harry Melling (Dudley Dursley, amazingly, from the Harry Potter films), the movie mixes melancholy, tragedy and wicked humor in a successful mix. This time, bad things happen to at least one good person. Melling, especially, is terrific, though Neeson is his usual fine self, as well.

Then there’s “All Gold Canyon,” which is not quite at the same level, but still interesting enough, with actor/musician Tom Waits as a prospector whose eventual big discovery is interrupted by an unwanted intrusion. Nature is an omnipresent character, the flora and fauna – briefly disturbed by the mania for metal – eventually returning to normal once things settle down. Waits holds our attention, as he always does.

Zoe Kazan in THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS ©Netflix

The penultimate film is another favorite of mine, with Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick) starring as “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” a young woman betrothed to her brother’s business partner who finds that life on a caravan headed further west is not quite what she anticipated. Another piece that finds just the right balance between comedy and calamity, this story benefits from Kazan’s pitch-perfect performance. There’s also a cute little dog, which helps.

Finally, we end with “The Mortal Remains.” Along with the opening film, this one is my least favorite, though I love the performances of Jonjo O’Neill (Tom Stagg on Netflix’s The Fall) and Brendan Gleeson (Calvary) as a pair of mysterious bounty hunters riding on a stagecoach with other passengers who, unlike them, seem clueless as to their destination. As the story rolls along, it becomes all too clear what the final stop must be (the title is not so subtle, either), and that is the problem. Everything is what it seems, which removes all mystery in the glaring light of the obvious.

So, if you’re keeping score, that’s two good ones, two others that are watchable, and two that are too clever by half. It could be worse, but it could be better. Given the Coens’ long love of sketch-based storytelling, in which the separate parts don’t always add up to a satisfying whole, perhaps The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is the ultimate expression of their occasional tendency to write good scenes (and bad) without regards to how they fit together. Enjoy what you can, then, and disregard the rest.

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; a regular film critic here at filmfestivaltoday.com; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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