The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Written, Directed by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Starring: Liam Neeson, James Franco, David Krumholtz, Clancy Brown, Zoe Kazan, Brendan Gleeson, Tom Waits, Tim Blake Nelson and Stephen Root
Run Time: 2h 12min
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Musical
3 1/2 Frames out of 5
By: Shari K. Green
Before I get into the meat of this review, let me tell you a few things about the movie for which I reviewed. ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ is a flick with several short stories within the two hour and twelve-minute film. The first short introduces the fabulously subtle Tim Blake Nelson as ‘Buster Scruggs’ in the segment called ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ which, by the way, is fantastic! It’s everything you could possibly hope for. It felt to me very much like one of my favorite Coen Brothers movies, their 2000 hit, ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ Once it started, I could see I wasn’t going to be disappointed so I settled in my seat, ready for another gem which, luckily, I was getting. I’m watching Scruggs on his horse and I’m loving it. This is what I came here for!
Buster’s scenes are about a singing cowboy and within the songs, some of the most shrewd and imaginative narration develops from this extremely exaggerated character and the situations he finds himself. His self-confidence makes it even funnier.
You’re a tad rattled when that segment ends, and we move onto the next. This one is called ‘Near Algodones,’ which stars James Franco. Very creatively and artistically, each segment is treated as a chapter book. It’s clever how it prepares the mind for something special. I watched. I waited and was rather disappointed when that extraordinary tale didn’t quite pan out as I had hoped. It was passable but what the film has already given, you look for here… and it just isn’t there. Its narration and some of the humor fairs well enough but it felt too short to allow you any real time with the characters. You can’t know or care much for them so ending it so abruptly doesn’t work. Perhaps the next will be better. No one’s perfect after all. Well, to my dismay, it wasn’t any better. It wasn’t tragic, but it does lead one to wonder what time it is. We want to and need to learn more about these characters before we move on… but we don’t. This is a sizeable lapse in judgment throughout the feature.
The third story is called ‘Meal Ticket.’ It stars Liam Neeson and, to be honest, doesn’t feel much like it fits. It’s about a man taking advantage of another man who’s in desperate need of help. When he can be easily replaced, he is… and it the most horrible way. It’s quite depressing and sad. And it gets altogether boring as it repeats itself. I can’t think of a single thing about this section that could be especially celebrated. However, I did enjoy some of the next narrative. It could be seen as dismal but portions of it made me smile. ‘All Gold Canyon,’ starring Tom Waits as a prospector panning for gold, is visually relaxing. A common theme in each film, though they’re separate from one another, arises. You realize that the lead character in each of the segments dies. However, with this piece, the scenery is so beautiful. As the prospector tears up the land looking for his ‘Mr. Pocket’ of gold, you find that the lead isn’t quite as easy to pick out. With what he’s doing, and what will happen to this paradise, it’s the land itself that will die.
There are more chapters, but I’ll end by saying this. Have no fear. Throughout the film, there does appear bits of sparkling brilliance that I have come to expect from the Coen’s. When these moments come the film couldn’t be better. Each of the stories has proficient and competent hands writing and directing them so why wouldn’t we see their unquestionable talent?! We do but that’s also the unfortunate question. Why didn’t we see it more often? These were anticlimactic. With the way most unfolded, it’ll leave you feeling cheated to a degree.
I’ll boil it down for you as to why. The trailer seemed to have promised so much more. Your sheer disappointment in the film as a whole is evident in how much you cling to hope that each tale improves. Your love for their storytelling will keep you hanging in, which I did, do and always will with their work. I believe the biggest and most obvious problem with this is there wasn’t enough time for development. Each story is GOOD and you want MORE so what was the point in leaving everyone hanging? If they make separate films or a series, which could very well be what’ll happen, I’m invested 100%!! And I sincerely hope they do.