A happy-go-lucky cowboy with a penchant for singing is offended when the wanted poster bearing his face calls him a misanthrope. Another cowboy enters a small bank with the intent to rob it. An old impresario travels the Wild West alongside a young man with no arms or legs. An old prospector arrives in a pristine mountain valley hoping to strike the mother lode. A woman named Alice Longabaugh travels with a caravan to Oregon for hopeful new opportunities. Five people travel by stagecoach as the sun sets. There are countless stories inspired by the United States’ westward expansion in the nineteenth century, and the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs compiles six of them.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
As the vignette that lends itself to the film’s title, Tim Blake Nelson puts on a dazzling performance as the singing Buster Scruggs. His narrations to the audience are quite charming and you will find yourself enraptured every second he is onscreen. The cowboy’s crowning achievement is when he manages to kill a fellow outlaw with the latter’s own gun. This is followed up with the equally impressive feat of gunning down the outlaw’s brother will looking in a hand mirror. Sadly, all good things must come to an end, for a young man arrives on the scene, challenges Buster to a duel, and wins handily. Buster only has a fleeting few seconds to survey his fatal wound before dropping dead. Fortunately, he’s not too torn up about his death, and even sings a duet with the victor as he rises into heaven.
James Franco plays a cowboy who wishes to rob a bank. He gets more than he bargained for when the teller escapes and later ambushes him. He awakens to discover that he is about to be hanged. Fortunately for him, the Comanche attack, killing everyone other than himself. A drover arrives to free the cowboy, but they are captured by the law enforcement. It turns out said drover was stealing cattle, thus drawing attention to the two of them. The two of them are sentenced to be hanged with two other outlaws. In a moment that takes the term “Gallows Humor” to its literal extreme, he asks the quivering man next to him, “First time?” In other words, “Near Algodones” showcases how fickle fate can be with a stroke of bad luck disguising itself as a lucky break.
Liam Neeson plays the impresario employing Harry Melling’s character: the armless, legless young man. The latter, despite his disability, enunciates well, reciting works such as Ozymandias, the story of Cain and Abel, and Merchant of Venice. He even quotes Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in a way that causes the audience to applaud every time. However, despite their initial success, they are eventually met with diminishing returns as the audiences grow indifferent to an act they believe to be a dancing bear. He observes a man winning a crowd over with a chicken he claims can perform basic math. The impresario manages to purchase the chicken and after gauging the depth of a river, leaves with the fowl the sole remaining passenger. What struck me about Harry Melling’s performance is that he only has lines when performing. While the relationship between his character and the impresario isn’t shown to be overtly abusive, it’s evident that the latter sees him as nothing more than a meal ticket, hence the name of the vignette. I can’t help but think of it as an allegory for music industry executives. Often having little artistic talent to speak of, they exploit those who possess that gift until they are expended, and then they move onto the next flavor of the month.
All Gold Canyon
“All Gold Canyon” casts the renowned avant-garde musician Tom Waits as the archetypical grizzled prospector. This is an example of a story that accomplishes a remarkable amount with few moving parts. The prospector is simply here to find a major gold deposit he has dubbed “Mr. Pocket”. This sequence captures just how tedious the process must have been. He has to dig many holes in random locations and painstakingly pan the dirt until he finds what he is looking for. You get a sense of what people had to do to survive in the wilderness, often having to improvise with what is on hand. Then, as the prospector finds out the hard way, there are the highwaymen. This one doesn’t even bother with pleasantries, shooting the old man in the back. If the audience was expecting a downer ending, the film thankfully cuts them a break. The old man was not shot in a fatal area. Using this continued survival to his advantage, he springs to life and kills his attacker, departing the valley with his hard-earned gold.
The Gal Who Got Rattled
After being reminded of Sierra’s classic adventure game Gold Rush! in the previous segment, “The Gal Who Got Rattled” naturally brought to mind The Oregon Trail. All the risks therein are present here, for Alice’s brother quickly dies from cholera. One of the caravan’s handlers, Billy Knapp takes pity on Alice. He offers a solution to solve her problems. If she marries him in Oregon, the laws will give the two of them enough acres of land to settle, thus ensuring her brother’s claim isn’t forfeit. Sadly, in a twist out of a Shakespearian tragedy, she and Mr. Arthur, Billy’s partner, get ambushed by Comanches. Mr. Arthur hands Alice a gun with which to commit suicide should he be unable to fend off the attack. Though he’s successful, a false alarm causes Alice to kill herself. He goes back to the caravan with no idea how he could possibly break the news to Billy.
The Mortal Remains
Five people, consisting of an Englishman, an Irishman, a Frenchman, a lady, and a trapper are traveling by stagecoach. They have their own stories to tell, and believe there to be two kinds of people in the world. Specifically, the lady believes people should be divided into two groups: good and bad. However, the Englishman and Irishman reveal themselves to be bounty hunters. To them, there are two kinds of people in the world: dead and alive. When the five of them arrive at the hotel, the bounty hunters carry a corpse into the building. Reluctantly, the remaining three people follow them inside well aware of the fate that awaits them. In many ways, “The Mortal Remains” reminds me of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope in that it’s a dialogue-heavy story in a small setting, yet manages to be highly suspenseful. While the nature of the bounty hunters isn’t made known immediately, when the deception is revealed, it seems to make every second last one minute.
I think my personal feelings about The Ballad of Buster Scruggs can be succinctly summed up by regaling the experience of seeing it in a fairly crowded theater. The audience was lively all throughout the first two segments, yet quieted down during the remaining four. It did receive a standing ovation when the credits started rolling, but while it is admirable that the film manages to cover quite a lot of stylistic ground in such a short amount of time, I feel their reactions spoke to its overall lack of cohesion or tonal consistency.
This isn’t to say that compilation films can’t be great; both Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan and Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog stand to this day as true classics. However, the former is a 180-minute work with four segments while the latter is composed of ten hour-long films. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, on the other hand, covers six segments in a 132-minute timespan. This leaves roughly twenty-two minutes per vignette, robbing them of a chance to fully develop. If you’re drawn in by the charismatic performance of Tim Blake Nelson, there’s a good chance you’ll be disappointed when he’s gone a mere twenty minutes later. The same principle applies to the rest of the segments. Some of are justifiably short while others end up rushing the characters’ arcs, making it difficult to get attached to them.
That being said, I still believe The Ballad of Buster Scruggs to be an above-average effort. It may not rank among the Coen brothers’ best films, but I can say fans of theirs will like it. For that matter, if you’re completely unfamiliar with their work, it wouldn’t be a bad starting point. The Coen brothers may have had their ups and downs in the early twenty-first century, but it was nice to know that in 2018, they hadn’t lost their touch.
Final Score: 6/10