The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) Director: The Coen Brothers

★★★★☆

I really enjoyed much of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, far more so than expected. This episodic homage to the classic tropes of the Western genre, was granted a limited release in theaters and was widely released for streaming on Netflix. The film has a storybook quality to it as we see the pages turn in an original fictional book edition from 1873.

The first segment “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” stars Tim Blake Nelson as Buster Scruggs –a Roy Rogers-esque singing, gun-slinging cowboy. It is an absurdist, light-hearted comedy (hearkening back to the Coen’s earlier film Raising Arizona) that plays out like a classic television western show. Buster Scruggs kills all his enemies in all manner of ridiculous gags until he is outmatched, shot through the head by a new singing cowboy. But even in death Buster Scruggs rises as a singing angel into heaven. It is an anti-misanthropic short story –one question I have is why the Coen’s chose this segment as the title to the whole film? Are there certain themes explored in this segment that are relevant to the whole film.

The second segment stars James Franco as an unknown cowboy who robs a remote bank in the New Mexico territory. Following a shootout, he is strung up to be hanged by a war party of Comanche attack the scene and leave him with the noose around his neck atop his horse. However, he is rescued by a drover leading his cattle, but the drover soon turns out to be a mere rustler. A band of lawmen chase them down and James Franco’s character is once again captured. This time he is hanged. Justice ultimately prevails against the bandits of the Old West.

The third segment is the strangest in my view. In it we follow a two-man (Liam Neeson and Harry Melling) traveling acting troupe as one man has essentially enslaved an orator with no arms and legs as he recites classic works from Shakespeare, the Bible, Shelley, and Lincoln as they travel from town to town. As they press on further into more remote regions, the act pays less and less until one day the businessman buys a chicken who can apparently complete arithmetic. In the end, we are led to believe he kills the crippled man by dropping him into a lake in order to replace him with the chicken. It is a cynical short film that carries echoes of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men as we question the utility of the arts and of “unproductive” people.

The fourth segment showcases a grizzled old prospector (Tom Waits) as he digs for cold in the middle of a pristine green meadow beside a rushing river. When he reaches the motherlode of gold, a young man who has been tracking the prospector suddenly arrives and shoots him in the back. Believing the prospector to be dead, he hops into the hole but the prospector leaps up and shoots the boy several times, revealing his wound to be minor. He claims the gold and buries the boy in his hole. The West is shown to be a vicious war of all against all despite the apparent serenity of its natural beauty.

The fifth segment follows a Wagon Train to Oregon as a girl named Alice (Zoe Kazan) whose brother dies perhaps of cholera. Distraught, she nevertheless continues onward and she is proposed to by a young man who has promising prospects thanks to the Homestead Act. However, she is tragically caught in a Native American raid one morning alone with the Wagon leader who gives her a pistol to use on herself if he should be killed. He fights the Indian warriors, but when she mistakenly thinks he has been killed, Alice shoots herself and after he defeats the warriors the Wagon train leader sadly trudges back to the group. There is room for chaos and mistaken loss of life in the Old West.

The sixth and final segment follows a group of people traveling via stagecoach en route to Fort Morgan, Colorado. The tension inside the stagecoach grows progressively more intense as two men are eventually revealed to be bounty hunters –one typically distracts people with stories while the other quietly murders them (one of the duo is played by Brendan Gleeson). When they arrive at the ominous hotel the two bounty hunters hop off and drag a corpse up to their room. The remaining passengers warily step off the stagecoach as it departs.

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