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Pretty Bad: 13.33%
Total Crap: 6.67%

2 reviews, 3 user ratings

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Ballad of Buster Scruggs, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Six Oaters In Search Of A Theatrical Venue"
5 stars

When the Coen Brothers announced that their newest project was not going to be a movie but a six-part television series for Netflix—a Western, no less—even their most ardent fans must have raised an eyebrow at the news. Of course, they had shown a facility for the genre in the past with their effective reimagining of the John Wayne classic “True Grit” (2010), not to mention the genre stylings that they worked into the contemporary features “Raising Arizona” and “No Country for Old Men,” but how would their complex storytelling style translate from the standard two-hour length of a feature film to a half-dozen episodes running about 22 minutes each? Those eyebrows arched even higher a couple of months ago when it was announced that the Coens had scrapped their initial plans for a limited series and that the six episodes would now make up a single feature film entitled “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” that would have a brief theatrical run but which would primarily be viewed via Netflix. As a result of all of this, some viewers might be forgiven for thinking that the film was just a grab bag of ideas that the Coens were unable to expand into feature films and instead chose to jam together into one ersatz feature as a way of clearing their decks. As it turns out, however, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is anything but a slapdash clearing house of half-baked ideas. In fact, it is as strange, funny, tragic and audacious as anything that they have done before in their careers and while it is far too early to tell where it might rank within the confines of their estimable filmography, I can say that it is indeed a major work from major filmmakers that more than deserves a place at the table with their other celebrated works.

The conceit of the film is that the six tales we are watching come from the pages of an old volume of pulp fiction Westerns, the kind of swift narratives that the writer character in “Unforgiven” would have cranked out back in the day. In the first story, which shares its title with the film proper, we meet the title character (Tim Blake Nelson), a example of that goofiest character type in the history of the genre—the singing cowboy. An aw-shucks type, Buster croons the Sons of the Pioneers classic “Cool Water” and talks directly to the camera about his philosophy of life and why he feels that it is unfair that he has been saddled with the nickname “The Misanthrope.” That nickname proves to be more than apt, however, as Buster proves to be a psychopath who mows down virtually everyone who steps into his path, all while continuing his overly ingratiating gee-whiz patter. The second story, “Near Algodones,” is another bit of bizarro black comedy featuring James Franco as a robber whose attempt to knock over a small and out-of-the-way bank kicks off an increasingly wild chain of events culminating in a hilariously bleak punchline. On the other hand, the third tale, “Meal Ticket,” is far more straightforward in its bleakness in its grim tale of a a traveling showbiz impresario (Liam Neeson) who realizes that his act, a man with no limbs (Harry Melling) who nevertheless performs everything from Shakespeare to Shelly to the Gettysburg Address with startling beauty and clarity, is no longer attracting audiences and makes a ruthless change to the act.

For the fourth story, “All Gold Canyon,” the Coens have looked to a short story from Jack London for inspiration with its tale of a wily old prospector (Tom Waits) coming upon a pristine valley that he begins to tirelessly defile in the hopes of finding enough gold underneath everything he is tearing away to make his efforts worthwhile (i.e. profitable) to him in the end. The next story, “The Girl Who Got Rattled,” also takes its inspiration from another popular author of pulp stories, Stewart Edward White, and tells the story of a young woman (Zoe Kazan) who is convinced by her brother, her only living relative, to accompany him as part of a wagon train heading west to a new life with a husband who may be waiting for her. Unfortunately, the journey goes sideways for her almost from the start as unexpected circumstances ranging from a payment her brother owes the wrangler handling her wagon to her constantly yapping puppy—a problem when crossing areas where marauding Indians are prone to attack—begin piling up in weird and potentially tragic ways. The film concludes with “The Mortal Remains,” a somber and eerie tale set in a stagecoach hurtling through the night filled with of a group of mismatched people—a Bible thumping woman (Tyne Daly), a fur trapper (Chelcie Ross), a Frenchman (Saul Rubinek) and a pair of apparent bounty hunters (Jonjo O’Neill and Brendan Gleeson)—talking and squabbling about their personal definitions of a fully realized life as they head towards their hazy and unspoken destination.

Assuming that none of the stories were altered too much once the decision was made to rework “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” from a six-part series to a single feature (the film runs 132 minutes, which averages out to about 22 minutes per story), I have to say that it was probably a good idea on the part of the Coens to reconfigure it as a single entity. Taken individually, some of their decisions might have seemed questionable at best—although both are hilarious, the first two stories are so wacky and abrupt in their storytelling that they might have single-handedly put some viewers off before getting to the meatier material. Taken all together, however, their vision of the Old West as an increasingly bleak and forbidding universe in which the qualities that the Western genre once espoused—nobility, selflessness, heroism and the like—prove to be ideals that quickly get lost in a fog of violence, dirt and despair. While the stories share no overt links to speak off, they nevertheless pull together into something resembling a consistent and coherent thematic whole in ways that might not be quite as obvious had they been seen in a more piecemeal manner.

In an anthology film of this sort, there is the temptation to rank the various stories to determine which ones are the successes and which ones are the failures. In this case, that is a little ore difficult because there is not really an overt dud in the bunch. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is admittedly slight but it has been made with a lot of energy and imagination—it plays like an insane combination of Tex Avery and Sam Peckinpah—before concluding on a surprisingly graceful moment. “Near Algodones” is also very funny as well and may well be the single most breathless stretch of kinetic filmmaking that the Coens have come up with since the extended botched robbery sequence in “Raising Arizona.” If I had to name one as the weakest of the bunch, it would probably be “Meal Ticket”—it is beautifully made and contains strong performances from Neeson and Melling (the latter virtually unrecognizable from his appearances in the “Harry Potter” films) but the gut-punch ending just feels a little too abrupt. On the other hand, “All Gold Canyons” is the best of the bunch, a nifty examination of the dark side of the pioneer spirit that also plays as an incisive parable of our current-day environmental policies and{/i} features a brilliant acting turn from Tom Waits to boot—how is it possible that this film is the first time that he and the Coens have collaborated? “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” which I believe is the longest of the stories, is an equally powerful tale (driven in no small part to a great performance by Kazan) that brutally deromanticizes notions of heroism and love by turning them into little more than well-meaning but ultimately emotionless transactions between people who are only interested in surviving another day. “The Mortal Remains” is an oddball conclusion and I can see why some people might find it to be unsatisfying but i found myself getting engrossed in both the weirdo humor and the increasingly eerie atmosphere as its built its way towards its mysterious but oddly apt conclusion—one that also brings the film full circle by harking back to a certain notion espoused by Buster in the first story.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a film filled with surprises but the greatest one may be how ultimately satisfying of a viewing experience it truly is. Most anthology films, even the best of them, sometimes leave you feeling like you have just had a meal comprised entirely of appetizers without ever getting around to the entree—you come away full but still can’t help but feel slightly dissatisfied. Here, you get the full meal experience from the amuse bouche of the first two stories to the palate cleanser that is the Neeson story to the twin main courses of the Waits and Kazan sequences, both of which are so strong and expansive that they feel like features themselves, before concluding with the offbeat confection that brings it to a conclusion. It even transcends its television roots thanks to the striking cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (marking the first time that the Coens have employed digital photography in their work)—it may have been designed for television but those who are able to see it on the big screen are advised to do so in order to get a full measure of his extraordinary efforts. That said, whether you view it in a theater or at home, you owe it to yourself to see it as it is one of the year’s very best films and one more notable chapter in one of the most extraordinary filmographies of our time.

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originally posted: 11/16/18 01:38:31
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 New York Film Festival For more in the 2018 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 AFI Fest For more in the 2018 AFI Fest series, click here.

User Comments

4/15/21 Louise (the real one) Tries to be clever but is just silly. Switched off after the first two 'stories'. 2 stars
11/20/18 the giver of the law More pretentious nonsense from the most over-rated film-makers of all-time ! ! !. 1 stars
11/19/18 Dr Mark Febbo Well I just saw Buster Scruggs and I’ve got to say I’m worried. A recent phenomenon ha 2 stars
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Directed by
  Ethan Coen
  Joel Coen

Written by
  Ethan Coen
  Joel Coen

  James Franco
  Liam Neeson
  David Krumholtz
  Brendan Gleeson
  Zoe Kazan
  Stephen Root

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