• Nate Adams

Review: Coen Brothers bring style to unbalanced 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs'


Courtesy of Netflix

Originally conceived as a six-part anthology series for Netflix, writer-directing duo Joel and Ethan Coen decided to hurl all their wacky stories into one long binge-watch. The jokes on us, because we’ve to sit through all of them, slowly figuring out along the way that perhaps the original approach could’ve been more fruitful.  

And this brings us to “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” a violent, picturesque, and tall tale anthology film of the Old West. Technically speaking, this could still be considered a Netflix series, just that you’ve to watch it for almost two and half hours straight. Considering only about two/thirds of the vignettes work, that could be huge order.

“Scruggs,” in typical Coen brothers fashion, is full of wildy majestic wilderness backdrops that do pop on screen, (you can tell from the opening frames that cardboard stands are being utilized to the fullest - in the same vein as the 1960 spaghetti westerns which owes inspiration to the material.) The colors are sensational and I can’t think of a better instance when Monument Valley looked as splendid. Better yet, there’s a theme of death linked to each episode that, whether we like it or not, amounts to something. Showcasing that, In this world, life is short, brutal and nasty.

The framing device is that it’s bringing to life a dusty old book of Western fables, each symbolised by illustrations. The Coen’s are literally heading back to the drawing boards to concoct some neatly designed sequences. The first of such: “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is easily the best (ebiet, most hilarious) story presented. Tim Blake Nelson (turning in a cartoonishly Looney Toon performance) is the antagonist of this Western satire. He rides through valleys as the singing cowboy, whose voice echoes off mountains. On his quest, Scruggs walks into a meaty bar filled with ruthless outlaws that refuses to serve him whisky. Within seconds, he’s killed everyone in the joint. The joke being he looks as harmless as a puppy. Later, at a poker game, the violence arises to more ambitiously silly extremes. But through it all Nelson just smiles and yaks his way through, often taking brief asides to the audience as to keep us in the loop.

This doesn’t present a consistent tone for where the Coen’s plan to take us. Including more down to earth facades. Regardless, we’re excited for where this is taking us. And when the next episode begins, we’re tuned into James Franco attempting to rob a bank, facing a gunslinging bank teller who wears kitchen pots as armor. It tows a steady line between reality and farce, offering a more nuanced narrative and continues to elevate the expectations.

The next episode: “Meal Ticket” brings forth a more relaxed vibe. “Ticket” focuses on a gruffy Liam Neeson playing a traveling showman with one freak. Referred to only as “The Artist” (Henry Melling - of “Harry Potter” fame) - his character is a soft-voiced lad missing his arms and legs. People fork over a couple bucks to watch his torso, sitting upon a stool, recite a wide array of Shakespeare, the Gettysburg Address and even the Declaration of Independence. The ending might shock you, but to get there we’ve got to sit through one too many of his performances.

It’s here where The Coen’s slugglishy lower our expectations. Because when the next episode entitled “All Gold Canyon” - starring Tom Waits as a muggy prospector searching for gold - begins, it feels out of place. On it’s own it could’ve worked as a half hour TV special, but when “Buster Scruggs” is often throwing start and stopping narratives into the mix, it feels like a cheat. A buffer on a runtime slowly overstaying its welcome.

As for the rest of the series, “The Girl Who Got Rattled” brings forth Zoe Kazan (from “The Big Sick”) in a decent role. She’s a lonely broad who travels with her brother to Oregon to peruse a business deal - after he croakes from cholera - she’s left stranded on a wagon in the middle of the harsh wilderness. In a surprise twist, this story is actually romantic. A welcome departure from the depths of traditional Coen fare. Don’t be fooled, because when the going gets tough - “Rattled” doesn’t negate the themes spread throughout the series.

And this finally simmers down to a supernatural escapade “The Mortal Remains” in which three characters (Chelcie Ross as an animal trapper; Tyne Daly as a persnickety Victorian slug, and frenchman Sam Rubinek) are being transported via horse and buggy with no end in sight. Their guides (Brendan Gleeson and Jonjo O’Neill) break the news of there travels and, strangely enough, the Coens are able to whip up a solid conclusion. Plus, who would ever be angry about hearing Gleeson deliver a somber tune (and he sings it live!) to end their picture.

So the results are mixed in that “Buster Scruggs” is considered a feature film, and thus the overall product should be taken individually rather than cohesively. There are some whip smart moments of snappy dialogue with enough tongue and cheek humor from the Coens to subdue the episodes which aren’t as strong as others (the runtime does no favors to those who can easily just remove “Buster Scruggs” from their Netflix que). But it all molds and bends into something tangible and provides a noteworthy reminder of why we enjoy the Coens. Virtuous or not.

Grade: B-