Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

7 Oct
By Tanner Smith
Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, I move from one Coen Brothers Western to another–one of last year’s most pleasant surprises on Netflix: “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.”

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is an anthology film of six short stories…even though it’s the first one that features both a ballad and a Buster Scruggs.

And WOW, does this collection start with a bang! It can even be argued that the film peaks too soon with the first segment, which only lasts about 20 minutes (if even that).

What’s the thing you remember the most from the Coens’ 2001 hit “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Aside from Man of Constant Sorrow. Aside from John Goodman. Aside from the cinematography. Aside from the baptism. Aside from–oh hell with it, it’s Tim Blake Nelson! His heavy Southern drawl crossed with his character’s naive innocence (save for that Piggly Wiggly he knocked over in Yazoo) made him easily everyone’s favorite character in that flick. Here, as jolly outlaw Buster Scruggs, he’s far from innocent but his persona is the same. He constantly monologues to the camera about how things work in the West and how most people go against it, causing him to strike back in a major way. He’s extremely crafty, especially when it comes to dealing with idiots who don’t play fair. And even he knows “you can’t be top dog forever.” All with that familiar Texas drawl that only Tim Blake Nelson can use to perfection.

His bit only lasts about 17 minutes–I could easily watch an entire feature-length film about this guy. But alas, after a darkly hilarious musical number, his story is over and we have no choice but to move on to the next chapter.

But even though we’ve had the best with the first of these six chapters, the rest of the chapters are entertaining and/or enthralling in their own ways. The second chapter, called “Near Algodones,” is pretty impressive. James Franco plays a cowboy who robs the wrong bank and thus endures unusual circumstances and consequences–one of which involves a pretty funny visual gag involving Franco being strung up by the neck and a horse that needn’t take many steps forward. And it only gets more unfortunate for Franco from there.

The third chapter, “Meal Ticket,” is where it gets very bleak and cold. Liam Neeson is an impresario who promotes an armless and legless performer who recites literary passages (and more)….I won’t give away how it ends, but let me just say I would skip this one if not for Dudley from the “Harry Potter” movies quoting the Bible and Shakespeare.

The fourth segment, “All Gold Canyon,” is the prettiest to look at, as it’s beautifully photographed. Tom Waits wanders through a canyon prospecting wherever he can for the possibility of gold–what he finds, I’ll leave you to discover.

The fifth chapter, “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” is probably the second best of the six. Zoe Kazan plays a young woman who finds herself in a dangerous situation, and Bill Heck is the heroic type that has to protect her…it doesn’t end well, sadly. (I said it was “second-best”; I didn’t say it was “fun.”)

And finally, “The Mortal Remains”–this one’s about a “Hateful Eight” type of situation with bounty hunters and other interesting folks riding in a stagecoach to a foreboding hotel. Not the strongest segment, but it is…interesting…enough.

Not that the Coens are often known for going on high notes with most of their films, anyway. What they usually care about is whether or not they make an impression. And with the four terrific films they’ve released this decade (including two other films I’ll get to before the decade is over–the underrated “Hail, Caesar!” and the critically beloved “Inside Llewyn Davis”), I’d say they still got what made them infamous to begin with.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is available on Netflix.

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