Off The Shelf: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
New to Netflix this month, the Coen Brothers, who are responsible for masterpieces like Fargo and No Country For Old Men, debuted their turn to digital with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. As an avid fan of their work, I was eager to catch their latest entry. To be completely honest, I found myself disappointed in their western anthology.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs showcases a series of vignettes in which the audience gets to experience ‘life in the old west’. The stories each have a unique identity and tone, with the only thing tethering them all together being the titular book containing the stories being flipped through by an unseen character. Buster Scruggs plays more like American Horror Story than Crash. None of the characters from the different stories intersect and enjoyment in each entry is varying to say the least. There are six stories in total. The first of which focuses on the titular character, Buster Scruggs. For me, this is where the film really hits its stride. The first story is the most unique and off putting, but it also possesses the most vibrancy. For the first time, The Coens truly seem to relish the digital medium here. Tim Blake Nelson in the role of Scruggs possesses all the camp and dry wit of a classic John Wayne picture, but tack on the fact that Nelson has the appearance of a man who would truly never hurt a fly. Of course, this makes for the picture perfect juxtaposition to have this be the most violent vignette in the film. Nelson constantly finds unique ways to utilize his two skills: bardic singing and murdering. The opening story, in turn, feels like it has the most energy. It plays up every shred of wackiness it can without ever feeling like it overstays its welcome. Unfortunately, it’s the only time the film feels this way. The second story sees James Franco as an unnamed bank robber who underestimates his bank teller opponent and finds himself in trouble with the law. Twice. It feels like a joke with a half assed punchline. Despite feeling nothing for Franco’s character or his circumstances, the second short is brief and jazzy enough that it doesn’t drain from the film’s first act or drag leading into the subsequent ones. The third story follows Liam Neeson and his traveling troupe (consisting of one armless, legless performer). Plagued with all the same problems as the first two acts, but tack on an overlong and downright dour storyline, this is clearly the turning point in the film for me. Neeson and his artist never have a chance to develop any sort of relationship. So the impact of the end is unfortunately lost on the audience. This is essentially my problem with the entire film. Buster Scruggs is the only character that ever feels like he makes an impression. And his story is done after 20 minutes. Every vignette that takes itself seriously runs the risk of the audience not caring about the people involved. And I must admit, I found myself not caring for a lot of this film and the people that inhabit it. The fourth story follows Tom Waitts as a gold miner, the fifth tells the story of a woman traveling along the Oregon trail, and the final story depicts a metaphorical circumstance involving 5 travelers on a wagon to (presumably) the afterlife (or at the very least, a nondescript location of impending doom). The gold miner has fine moments of tension and suspense, but they feel hollow with how little I get to know about Waitts. The Oregon Trail story features, I would wager, the longest short of the bunch. It’s the story I feel the most torn about, because while I do believe a solid ten minutes could be trimmed from it, it has the most well rounded story. It develops into a touching western romance with an incredibly powerful climatic shoot-out sequence, but I can’t escape the hollow feeling imparted on me by the rest of the film. The wagon ride finale has some of the Coen’s best dialogue in the film, but with so much already weighing down the film, it feels like it needs to pack more of a punch at the end. Not to mention the fact that I still don’t feel like I know anyone in it. Coming away from it, I find myself saying “oh yea that woman with the hat,” or “that guy with the beard”. Hollow characters with great dialogue...or is it just fun dialogue? I honestly can’t tell.
I keep contemplating how the order of the film shoots itself in the foot. By front loading the beginning with such brief and vibrant shorts to then expand to the somber, sobering stories makes it feel empty by the end. I keep thinking changing the order of the film’s stories would greatly change my enjoyment. Tack on the lack of impactful characters, and this results in one of my least favorite Coen films to date. But keep in mind that statement: ‘Coen films’. The worst Coen Brother’s film is the best comparatively to most. At the end of the day, the performances here are still excellent. The filmmaking, when it’s at its best, feels like it catapults the audience from scene to scene with the same love and care you’d find in any of this duo’s classics. When I really stop to think, perhaps the hardest thing this movie has to overcome is living up to the mountain of phenomenal work that came before it.