An Arguing With Myself Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

November 26, 2018 Author: Chris Frodel

Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an anthology that consists of six segments: “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”, “Near Algodones”, “Meal Ticket”, “All Gold Canyon”, “The Gal Who Got Rattled” and “The Mortal Remains”.

I’ve waited patiently for its release, thinking it was going to be in theaters but to my surprise (and admittedly, my delight) it was a Netflix release. That meant, I could enjoy it from the comforts of my home. Don’t get me wrong, I would’ve gladly gone to the theater to see it but with everything life throws at you (job, family, responsibilities), I most likely would’ve missed its run. I’d also venture to bet that it would either be a short run in theaters or shown in limited release. I don’t know what gets people in seats but sadly this type of filmmaking isn’t one of them. To that, I say, it’s their loss.

I watched the film in the order it was presented. It isn’t necessary but like a good mix tape, this had a nice flow to it. I’ll give the synopsis of the segments and my initial thoughts on them. Beginning with the film’s namesake.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

We’re introduced to Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) singing a song while strumming his guitar. A Gene Autry-type with a penchant for big descriptive words and being one heck of a pistoleer. I thought, being the segment was named after the film, Buster would be the through line for each story. He only occupies this one segment.

Near Algodones

James Franco stars as a hapless thief that has a neck people just want to put a noose around. This segment is the shortest and most Coenesque of all the stories presented. I could see this fitting nicely somewhere in their film True Grit. I can also see Franco’s character being a distant relative of H. I. McDunnough.

Meal Ticket

A stagehand (Liam Neeson) assembles a makeshift stage, a theater on wheels. The star; a man (Harry Melling) with no arms or legs, propped up on a chair, performing monologues of poems, speeches and quotes. Each night they collect donations from the crowds to get enough to eat and move on to the next town. Despite having each other as company, it seems to be a lonely partnership. Not all that glitters is gold. Which brings us to…

All Gold Canyon

This one was the oddest of the bunch. We are introduced to a prospector (Tom Waits) panning for gold by this stretch of river. That’s pretty much it. He grumbles to himself and sings a little minstrel song, letting the grand mountain range and lush greenery be his costar. Watch until the end. It’s somewhat worth the wait.

The Gal Who Got Rattled

A brother (Jefferson Mays) and sister (Zoe Kazan) set out on a wagon train to Oregon from St. Louis to begin anew with a job opportunity for him and a potential marital partner for her. The longest of the entries and again, this could easily be placed somewhere within True Grit. I may be mistaken but I believe this and “Near Algodones” are the only two segments that are connected by certain characters. If I’m lying, I’m…onto the last segment.

The Mortal Remains

Five strangers (Brendan Gleeson, Jonjo O’Neill, Tyne Daly, Saul Rubinek and Chelcie Ross) find themselves passengers on a stagecoach. Each of them with different backgrounds from one another but each expected to reach the same destination. Along the way they discuss how many “types” of people there are and matters of life and death. A philosophical end cap to the subjects throughout the film.

We know “How The West Was Won” but you can’t have winners without losers. Not all segments would rise to the top, in my opinion. In fact, I found the weakest links were “All Gold Canyon” and “The Gal That Got Rattled”. But I won’t let a couple bad apples spoil the bunch. Overall, I’ve enjoyed the Coen’s visions of the West. From their character’s lyrical delivery of dialogue to the gallows humor, it is unmistakably a Coen Brothers’ production. There’s always something to absorb from a Coen Brother’s film. If you like “True Grit”, “O Brother Where Art Thou” or maybe “Burn After Reading” then “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” won’t sway your opinion in the slightest. For fans of theirs, this is a welcomed addition to their Filmography.

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