The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is very much a Coen Brothers movie, and I mean that both as a compliment and as a critique. It has a macabre sense of humor, flirts with the eerie, and is very dialogue-heavy, but it’s also very dialogue-heavy and imbalanced narratively. I don’t see the word “revisionist” in Netflix’s official press materials for the film but I have seen it described that way by other writers at other publications, and I’m sorry, but what is revisionist about a series of Western stories that focus primarily on white men and still portray Native Americans as savage barbarians and feature only one female character who is portrayed as a damsel in distress? Nothing about that seems very revisionist to me.
Streaming now on Netflix, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a six-part anthology, with each chapter exploring a different trope of the Western genre. Sharpshooters, bank robbers, prospectors, traveling entertainers, pioneers on the Oregon Trail, and stagecoach travelers all pop up, and the locations — some filmed in New Mexico — are gorgeous and evocative of the Old West. There are wide-open scrubby fields, solitary trees, rolling hills, gorgeous blue skies, towering rock formations and cliff faces, and lush green valleys, and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (who also worked with Joel and Ethan Coen on Inside Llewyn Davis and Paris, je t’aime and has collaborated often with Tim Burton, working on Dark Shadows, Big Eyes, and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children) frames them beautifully.
The film begins with the Tim Blake Nelson-starring “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” which is almost like a Looney Tunes cartoon: Sharpshooter Buster is a fourth-wall-breaking yodeler and self-described “songbird” who gleefully sings to himself while shooting at the slightest provocation. He’ll shoot each finger off your hand to teach you a lesson, and the segment ends with an impressively tricky composition in which three different actions draw your eye in the foreground, middleground, and background, showing the phases of a duel and its aftermath.
Next up is the James Franco-focused “Near Algodones,” which has a swift narrative progression and a grimly circular ending, and the phenomenally depressing “Meal Ticket,” with Liam Neeson as a traveling entertainer who has essentially bought a spectacular orator who happens to be limbless (Harry Melling) to be his peculiar attraction.
Tom Waits shines in his typically crazy way in the segment “All Gold Canyon,” in which he’s a prospector convinced that there is a gold pocket in a land that displays “no sign of man, nor the handiwork of man,” and Zoe Kazan is the sole female character of note in the entire film in “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” in which she joins a caravan traveling to Oregon and strikes up a tentative sort of friendship with one of the guides, Billy Knapp (Bill Heck). The film concludes with the segment “The Mortal Remains,” in which three disparate passengers in a stagecoach realize that the two men sitting across from them (Brendan Gleeson, great as usual, and Jonjo O’Neill, an Edgar Allan Poe lookalike and a revelation) may not be the undertakers they claim.
Put bluntly: These segments aren’t equally strong; they drag; they deliver repetitive themes. The West was brutal, the West was bloody, the West was greedy. OK, but what else? How do the Coen Brothers see the West differently from how the genre already exists? In the past few years, we’ve seen the Western transform into something that more closely reflects our modern realities: Wind River, for all of its faults, investigated how corporate greed and federal negligence are affecting Native American communities; The Rider actually spent time in those Native American communities, exploring rodeo culture and the toxic masculinity surrounding it; Lean on Pete considered the mythic image of the horse as a cowboy’s best friend; and the Jessica Chastain-starring Woman Walks Ahead focused on an unlikely partnership between a white female artist and Chief Sitting Bull.
It’s disappointing, then, that the Coens don’t even try to upend any classic Western clichés in this work — they apply some grim humor to various situations, but that’s about it, which adds to that repetitive feeling from story to story. There are no meaningful non-white characters; Native Americans, in two different segments, are marauders and murderers. Kazan nails the initially hesitant, ultimately slightly hopeful vibe of the Alice Longabaugh character, but if the Coens’ point was that women during the 19th century were forced to rely on men on everything, well … yeah? I mean, of course they did?
Undeniably, there are solid performances throughout — Nelson is great as a man whose smile never slips, even while leading a saloon in a song about a rival whose gory death he just caused; Stephen Root shows up for an amusing cameo in “Near Algodones”; and Harry Melling (unrecognizable now, after years of playing Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films) is compelling and heart-breaking in “Meal Ticket.” But the best way to get through The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is probably a segment at a time; the anthology format allows you to pick and choose segments at will, and I wonder if I would have enjoyed the film more if I had seen it that way instead of sitting through all six segments at once. (Potentially.) Or maybe I should have just rewatched The Rider instead. (Probably.)
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