If you visited a Dad or dad-like person in your life over Thanksgiving, you probably watched The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. I certainly did. And for the most part, I liked it. Anthology films and shows usually seem to do it for me, and there was something inherently fun about the movie’s concept: six darkly comic (or sometimes just dark) Western tales from the Coen Brothers, all springing to life from the pages of an illustrated storybook, spanning every subgenre from musical to survivalist fiction to ghost story.
Of course the results were hit and miss. That’s the nature of these things: I doubt there’s a single anthology film out there that’s all hits (there are certainly many that are all misses). The mixed bag nature of an anthology is the whole point. In fact, I would argue that Buster Scruggs is actually less scattershot than some of the Coens’ other films, particularly Hail Caesar!, the most recent of theirs I saw in theaters and a mixed bag if ever there was one.
Although I’m not the only one to rank all of these segments, for some reason I just couldn’t get the idea of doing so out of my head. So, unless I grievously misremember, here’s the way each of these stories stacks up. And also there are spoilers in these here parts, so don’t say you ain’t been warned. Or something. *spits*
6) “The Gal Who Got Rattled”
For all the things it does well, Buster Scruggs is lousy at representation. There are precious few significant parts for women, and more than half of the stories have zero important speaking roles for women at all. That’s a shame, even moreso because the one story with a female protagonist is also the worst.
Zoe Kazan is certainly good as Alice Longabaugh, a kind of Oregon Trail version of Daenerys Targaryen, except instead of dragons she has a dog named after the president and instead of everything else that makes Daenerys interesting she just has the dead brother. And her brother isn’t even covered in gold!
Despite the beautiful cinematography and sweeping prairie scenery, the story slogs along, with too many courtly wagon train scenes between Alice and her suitor, Billy Knapp (Bill Heck). A lot of their conversations have to do with financial matters involving a barely seen wagon boy. Because that’s why you decided to watch this movie, right? To watch the Western version of the senate scenes from the Star Wars prequels?
And while Alice’s tragic self-inflected death can be seen as a commentary on the fearmongering of white cowboys like Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines), nothing about the way natives are presented in this movie does anything to challenge ugly racist “Hollywood Indian” tropes, this segment especially (sadly, we are still watching movies where characters we are supposed to care about call native Americans savages without rebuke in 2018, and yes, I know it’s meant to be “of the times”. Not an excuse.). IMHO, it would have been better if Mr. Arthur had turned out to be completely wrong and the “war party” had actually been peaceful all along (it’s depressing how many people see him as a “heroic badass” in this scenario). This was the biggest disappointment of the film and the actors involved deserved better.
5) “Near Algodones”
It’s got a neat ending, some clever dialogue and a few memorable setpieces, but compared to the other segments this is a surprisingly forgettable outlaw story about why you can’t beat death forever, as a bank robber (James Franco) suffers a bizarre streak of bad luck that does not end well for him. The trailer gives the best line away, and in a weird way, although it’s not as disappointing as #6 on this list it’s more eminently skippable. Also, James Franco has a history of predatory behavior and should not still be making movies.
4) “Meal Ticket”
This one has a solid premise but peters out towards the end. Maybe it’s just me. I feel like we don’t really get enough information about “Professor Harrison” (Harry Melling), a young man with no arms or legs who recites famous speeches as a sideshow act, to really understand his relationship with his “impresario” (Liam Neeson).
Yes, Melling is a marvelously expressive actor, and Neeson disappears into his part, but we need more to really care about what happens here. Melling’s character never speaks offstage and while we get the sense that he knows his partner will betray him, he ultimately feels like a passive character waiting to die, which leaves us counting time until the inevitable happens. Too bad, since there’s a significant amount of tension built up before then. That must be one hell of a chicken, though.
3) “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”
Probably the most crowd-pleasing of all the segments, not in the least because it’s an overtly comedic, blood-soaked cowboy musical featuring Tim Blake Nelson as the titular Buster Scruggs, a sort of cross between Gene Autry and The Punisher. Nelson’s character, a chipper warbling gunslinger with a nasty violent streak, claims he’s not a misanthrope but seems awfully eager to almost literally dance on the grave of a guy he just killed.
That guy, by the way, is Çurly Joe (Clancy Fucking Brown), pronounced “Surly Joe”, as the above number will inform you. I love the way Scruggs engineers his own crowd by throwing peoples’ hats in the air for them while gloating about Joe’s death (“He was mean in days of yore/Now they’re moppin’ up the floor”). This scene is, I don’t mind disclosing, my Dad’s favorite part, and he’s still sending us emails about it today.
Nelson often plays exaggerated goofballs but here there’s something sinister playing around his eyes. I almost wish the Coens had gone with the more obvious version of this joke and made Scruggs overtly malicious: he does only kill in self defense, after all, and the final song takes a weird turn as if the entire story had really been about how “you can’t be on top forever”. Still, there’s a lot of great gags and lines here, and the songs will be stuck in your head for days. Willie Watson also has a handsome cameo as the dapper newcomer and leads a memorable duet. If you love O Brother, Where Art Thou? and don’t mind a bit of over-the-top gore, this will suit you just fine.
2) “All Gold Canyon”
Would you watch a full feature film about Tom Waits panning for gold in the wilderness while ranting at nobody? I would! Until that film gets made, we have this richly evocative fable, in which Waits, looking more than a little like famous G.I. Gus Chiggins, seeks out a seam of gold he’s dubbed “Mister Pocket” in a beautiful green valley. No matter how accurate the portrayal of prospecting is here, you’ll have a new appreciation for the amount of work it takes to trace gold from flakes to nuggets to the source.
The photography here is top-notch, and the conceit of Waits talking out loud to himself avoids being cheesy because, as my brother put it, this is probably what Waits is like on an average weekend anyway. His reaction to surviving a bullet to the back is priceless. It’s also the one story in this collection to have the closest thing to a happy ending, depending on how sarcastic you think the Coens are being here. It’s a highlight either way, for sure.
1) “The Mortal Remains”
There’s something about bottle episodes that seems to up creators’ games, across the board, whatever the medium. Strip down the narrative, cram a bunch of characters into a locked room and watch the scenario play itself out. In this case, the room is inside of a coach, and the characters are: René, a cynical Frenchman (Saul Rubinek), Mrs. Betjeman (Tyne Daly) a supercilious zealot, the Trapper (Chelcie Ross), who turns out to be surprisingly chatty, and a pair of suspicious gentlemen in natty suits (Jonjo O’Neill and Brendan Gleeson) who might be conmen, or murderers, or something even worse…
What’s genius about this bit is the way it seems to be plot-based but ultimately is all about character and mood. The quasi-supernatural elements creep in as slowly as the sinking sun, so that when O’Neill delivers his gorgeously theatrical monologue about the power of storytelling (which shows up in the trailer and might as well be the thesis of this whole movie) it feels like we’ve already entered the underworld. The Gothic performances and ghostly blue lighting of the moments of the film’s last few scenes are almost like something out of Guy Maddin if he ever did a Western horror story (and why can’t he, already?).
As others have surely noted, the most prominent theme throughout these stories is the presence of death in the West. This is the only story where we, perhaps, come face to face with capital “D” Death, depending on what O’Neill and Gleeson’s roles as “reapers” really entails. The Coens probably could have gone straight up horror movie on us but they wisely keep things ominous and ambiguous, allowing the creepy ending images to tease us and let that be that. This segment may not be as rousing as what’s come before but it’s an achievement all the same and helps to close the anthology out on a suitably spooky note.