Brace yourself for something chilling. I, a supposedly serious film critic, run hot and cold on the Coen Brothers. Yes, despite their reputation as masters of their craft, I only occasionally fall for their work. It’s incredibly hard to predict too. I love Inside Llewyn Davis more than almost anyone, but have shrugged off some of their classics. All of this is to say that their latest effort, the western anthology tale The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, actually worked for me, so that should mean something. By having so many tones, it makes it almost impossible for anyone who even sometimes digs the Coens to resist. It hits Netflix this weekend and has been in a few theaters since the weekend. You’d do well to check it out.
The movie is an anthology of sorts, told in six separate chapters. Chapter One is literally called The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and concerns a singer of the same name (Tim Blake Nelson), who also happens to be a crack shot. He makes his way around the west, singing his songs and blowing people away in equal measure. Chapter Two is Near Algodones, where a would be bank robber (James Franco) ends up quickly regretting his choice. Chapter Three is called Meal Ticket and follows two performers (Liam Neeson and Harry Melling) as they travel the frontier, putting on their shows. All Gold Canyon is Chapter Four and tags along with an old prospector (Tom Waits) as he searches for gold. Chapter Five is called The Gal Who Got Rattled and has the largest canvas to paint on. Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) is unexpectedly alone on a wagon train headed west, one where she might actually find love with a kind man (Bill Heck), but also a healthy dose of sadness/irony. Finally, Chapter Six wraps us up. It’s called The Mortal Remains and features five individuals (Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Jonjo O’Neill, Chelcie Ross, and Saul Rubinek) sparring as they approach a hotel. Nothing is as it seems. If these sound very different, it’s on purpose. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen co-write and co-direct, with supporting players in the different chapters including Clancy Brown, Grainger Hines, David Krumholtz, Stephen Root, and more. Carter Burwell provides another strong score for the Coens, while cinematography comes from another frequent collaborator in Bruno Delbonnel.
Whichever type of Coen film you prefer, there’s a bit of that to be found here. Kazan and Nelson are best in show, though it’s the shifting tone that’s the true focus here. If you want black comedy, the first two chapters are right there, with the first part and Nelson literally being a laugh riot. If you want quiet earnestness, the middle sections achieve that. If you want cruel irony, Kazan’s section is a bit of a heartbreaker. Finally, if you like to be puzzled by the Coens, the last chapter is that, and then some. It all adds up to one of their most interesting works of late.
This is how I would rank the six chapters, in case you were curious:
6. Meal Ticket
5. All Gold Canyon
4. The Mortal Remains
3. Near Algodones
2. The Gal Who Got Rattled
1. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Oscar wise, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs may struggle to score any nominations, a rarity for recent Coen flicks. Regardless of that, it’s still quality entertainment. Fans of the Coen Brothers will undoubtedly rejoice, while even haters should find something to grab on too. The Academy may not end up knowing what to do with it, but Netflix will help it live on. Frankly, it could end up as one of their most popular titles, because of that assist. If you can see it on a big screen, definitely do so. If not, it will be streaming in a matter of days. Either way, it’s well worth making time for…
Be sure to check out The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, in select theaters now and on Netflix this Friday!