Cast: Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Synopsis from Rotten Tomatoes: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a six-part Western anthology film, a series of tales about the American frontier told through the unique and incomparable voice of Joel and Ethan Coen. Each chapter tells a distinct story about the American West.
When I first that the Coen brothers would be making a mini-series based on a plethora of Western short stories, naturally I was interested. Based on their previous works, there is no reason why we should expect anything other than a unique, comedic, and depressing take at whatever this series would look like. When I later heard this would be condensed into a full-length movie, I got a little nervous because these are two very different things, but the Coen brothers are good enough to make it work. The acting is strong, the cinematography is gorgeous, and a story that goes from goofy and hilarious to somber and depressing in a moment’s notice are what make The Ballad of Buster Scruggs another solid contribution to the Coen brothers catalog.
The film is a compilation of six anthologies which all take place in the same Western setting but all deal with different characters and the various situations that they have gotten themselves into. Whether they are comic genius or a sobering look at the human experience, each story switches tone and illustrates a different theme, tone, and moral as we move from each one. This can be a little strange if you are not used to a movie like this, but the beautiful part about this movie is that there is at least one story that everyone can enjoy. Starting with the comedic stories, the things that truly stand out are the level of acting as well as the cinematography. These are predominantly on display in the first story, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” The first thing you can notice is the joy Tim Blake Nelson is having in the titular role. You can tell just how much fun he is having from the way he smiles, the way he dances in the bar, to the charisma in which he delivers lines. Nelson is not just the star of this episode, but it can be argued that he is the highlight of the whole movie and one of the main reasons why you should watch it. Outside of Nelson, Franco, Waits, and Zoe Kazan all deliver strong performances in their own right. Some of the stories continue the level of humor felt in the opening story, while other actors like Waits and Kazan handle their depressing stories like the professionals that they are. Give credit to whoever the casting director, as they picked the perfect person for each of these roles and this provided a level of balance throughout the film that was needed for it to be successful. Outside of the acting, the cinematography is some of the best of Bruno Delbonnel’s great career. This is the first Coen brothers film to be shot digitally and none of the magic of the movie is lost as a result of this decision. Not only does Delbonnel completely capture the beauty of the American West in all of its seasons, but his various array of angled and ranged shots helps us understand the story without explicitly telling us what is going on. This helps the viewer tremendously as many of the stories rely on subtlety and symbolism, so an added resource for the viewer is always appreciated. Regarding the tone shift in these stories, some people may not like this as it can come across as depressing, and I agree to an extent as I felt the weaker of the six stories were the ones that dealt with the depressing elements of life. While I do think the balance was fair, this does not take away the rough patches that stories like, “Meal Ticket,” and, “The Mortal Remains,” have in store for us.
Overall, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is the type of movie that works out very well on paper, but very rarely translates well on the screen. Fortunately for us, the Coen brothers know what they are doing and once again provide us with 133 minutes of light-hearted humor merged with the conscious reality of all of our situations. Not many people have the talent to pull off a project like this, but when you assemble two of the greatest directors of this century, a five time Academy Award nominated cinematographer, and an ensemble cast of actors who are all some of the best at their craft, there is no reason why The Ballad of Buster Scruggs should be anything less than the product we got to enjoy.
Overall Score: 8.5/10