‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’: Six darkly comic tales of the Old West

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” feels like a very strange dream and stands quite unlike any other film I have seen. The Coen brothers are known for their strange, existential style of humor, but never has it been given such a platform to shine in as their newest feature, released by Netflix on Nov. 16. While the film’s construction as an anthology of individual tales prevents it from having any overarching narrative, there is a clear theme of mortality and death present in each of the six segments.

The first story presented to us is that of the titular “Buster Scruggs,” a singing gunslinger portrayed by Tim Blake Nelson (“Holes”). This segment stands apart from the rest both in tone and style, feeling very light with many songs and direct asides to the audience. It acts as a sort of primer for what we as viewers are about to get into, introducing the film’s black sense of humor and its musings over the futility of existence.

The next tale, “Near Algodones,” is the shortest of the bunch and probably the weakest. Here, James Franco (“127 Hours”) stars as a bank robber who is dealt a bit of cosmic justice. The whole segment feels somewhat confusing, however the head-scratching is minimal as it’s over about as soon as it begins

This is followed by “Meal Ticket,” which is easily the bleakest section of the entire film. Bereft of the humor or beautiful landscapes used to lighten up the other five parts, this tale has an inescapable cruelty hanging over it. The story follows Liam Neeson (“Schindler’s List”) as a showman who carts around a limbless young orator, played by Harry Melling (“Harry Potter” franchise), from town to town, collecting money from spectators. The main point here seems to be the shift in public entertainment interests from the high-brow to the low, as well as the repercussions for entertainers. The segment’s desolate, snowy setting does little to assuage the unsettling feeling it leaves.

The fourth segment, “All Gold Canyon,” is unique in that it is not an original story, but instead an adaptation of a short story by Jack London. Singer-songwriter Tom Waits appears as an old prospector who discovers a beautiful valley in the mountains, untouched by man. He proceeds to search the fertile ground for signs of gold. The main focuses of this story are man's relationship to nature and the fruits of hard work, ending with a fairly literal interpretation of the phrase “crime doesn’t pay.” “All Gold Canyon” contains the best cinematography of the bunch, each frame appearing absolutely stunning.

“The Gal Who Got Rattled” is by far the longest tale, taking up about one-third of the runtime. Of all the stories, this one feels the most like a full-fledged film in its own right, containing strong narrative and fully fleshed-out characters. Zoe Kazan (“The Big Sick”) stars as Alice Longabaugh, a young woman traveling west with her unsuccessful brother in a wagon train. Along the way, her brother succumbs to disease, and she must seek help from the ruggedly handsome leader of the expedition, Billy Knapp (played by Bill Heck).

The film closes with the segment, “The Mortal Remains,” a macabre parable of fate. Feeling very much like Quentin’s Tarantino's 2015 film, “The Hateful Eight,” this segment focuses on five disparate passengers in a stagecoach traveling to a hotel: a solitary trapper, the wife of a popular preacher, a French gambler and two deeply disturbing bounty hunters. The segment’s strength lies in its buildup, as the atmosphere becomes increasingly tense and unsettling as the carriage ride drags on.

Just like Netflix's other recent film, “Outlaw King,” “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” boasts beautiful cinematography. The western landscape looks absolutely spellbinding, with each segment highlighting a different environment. As previously stated, the best looking short is “All Gold Canyon,” which has a visual style similar to the great American landscape paintings of the mid-19th century by Bierstadt. It is unfortunate that the film was not given a wider cinematic release, as its images beg to be seen on the biggest screen possible.

The soundtrack to the film is also top-notch, featuring music by frequent Coen collaborator Carter Burwell. The music shines the most in the opening segment, which includes multiple musical numbers sung by Tim Blake Nelson and country singer Willie Watson. “The Mortal Remains” also contains a beautiful folk ballad titled “The Unfortunate Lad” sung by Brendan Gleeson (“Harry Potter” franchise).

If I had any complaints, I felt that a few of the segments ended too soon. However, I realized my annoyance came not because the segments were bad but because I craved more. I wanted to remain in the world which the Coens had masterfully crafted and see more of these characters. There was a deep feeling of richness within each segment. Even among characters who had little to say, there was a sense of history and personality.

This film does what only a very good film can: it inspired deep reflection of what you’ve watched and made you consider what messages it holds. While by no means a happy film, it is still deeply enjoyable, containing the unique charm that only the Coens can bring. I am pleased to say that “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is the Coens’ best film since 2010’s “True Grit,” and is definitely one of the best films I have seen this year. Check this one out on Netflix as soon as you can.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars


Evan Burns is campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at evan.burns@uconn.edu.