Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Length: 133 Minutes
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is the latest from the brilliant and darkly hilarious minds of Joel and Ethan Coen. The film tells six different short stories about the American West. The saga opens with a shot of a book that shares its title with the film, and the transitions between each story show an unknown reader turning the page to the next chapter. I have to admit anthology films aren’t often something I get excited about, because there’s usually one or two of the stories I like and a bunch of others I don’t give a crap about. This one is different, and came really close to being great from start to finish. I’m not going to summarize the setup of each story. I will say that my favorites feature Tim Blake Nelson, Stephen Root, Tom Waits, Tyne Daly and Brendan Gleeson.
I couldn’t help but view the opening narrative as an unintended “take that, Spielberg” moment. Steven Spielberg has been very outspoken about his disapproval of streaming services like Netflix producing films and then releasing them into one or two theaters so they are eligible for Oscars. He has also complained that films produced for Netflix, because they are shot with television screens in mind, are merely made for TV movies. I don’t know when the last time was he watched a TV movie, but TNT is not producing anything like this, particularly in terms of writing or cinematography. The first story in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs blows Spielberg’s argument to pieces. The Coen Brothers’ new creation not only looks epic, it is also fun, absurd, and thought provoking.
Most of the stories tackle tropes that we’ve seen in westerns before but from a different viewpoint and with some fresh twists. When the film does this well, it is mesmerizing. It doesn’t hurt that composer Carter Burwell, fresh off his Oscar nomination for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, fresh off his Oscar nomination for Darkest Hour, provide top-notch work to compliment the actors and script.
The aforementioned first chapter is by far the most zany of the stories in this film and follows Scruggs as he encounters various dangerous situations. He is constantly breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly. There is even a fun musical number. Afterward, the pacing of the film was a bit odd. The first four narratives fit into the first half of the film and the last two were the second half. The fifth narrative in particular didn’t feel like it fit into the rest of the chapters. It included a lot of unnecessary exposition and just felt too long.
That said, this film was beautifully shot and the score was awesome. A lot of these narratives were set in places with beautiful scenery and it was breathtaking to watch in 4K. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs demonstrates in broad strokes all the cinematic possibilities of Netflix and other streaming services that have deep pockets. Sure, it would look awesome on a big screen in a dark auditorium, but if directors like Cuarón and the Coen Brothers head over to Netflix, it’ll free up some screens for Indiana Jones 5 or a West Side Story remake.
Yeah, can’t wait for those.
I think the script’s structure and the placement of the stories makes sense considering how the film opens and how it ends. Each story addresses sub-themes of its own while still playing a key part in this (mild spoiler) two hour contemplation of death. I can’t imagine the film beginning or ending differently, but it is front loaded. The first hour is more enjoyable than the second. The fifth story also did very little for me, and features a flaw that popped up briefly at one other point: stereotypical depictions of Native Americans.
Most of this film seemed like a clever update of old fashioned westerns, so it was disappointing that the Native American characters, who didn’t even have speaking roles, were so clichéd and one dimensional. They were all simply villains. Really? We’re doing this still, in 2018? HBO’s Westworld is set in a theme park that caters to its guests’ simplistic and stereotypical views of various cultures, yet we got characters based on Native Americans who had some real depth and complexity. Of course Hollywood has a long way to go towards improving depictions of Native Americans, but The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is stunningly bad in this aspect. Or maybe not so stunning. Remember one-dimensional Shep Proudfoot from Fargo, another Coen Brothers film?
The Coen Brothers aren’t ones to do sequels, and that’s one of the things I love about them, but if they decide to add another volume of these adventures to their canon in the future, I’m on board, but I hope they make the cast and stories more diverse next time. The American West wasn’t just home to white men.
Schaffstall, Katherine. “Steven Spielberg Thinks Netflix Films Should Not Qualify for Oscars.” The Hollywood Reporter, 26 Mar. 2018, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/steven-spielberg-thinks-netflix-films-should-not-qualify-oscars-1097351. Accessed 21 Nov. 2018