The Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs Offers Whimsy But No Risks

Reviewed by Kristy Puchko

With No Country For Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen brought the Western into a brutal, modern territory. With their remake of True Grit, they dusted off an American classic and polished it with star power, a dash of whimsy, and a mean sheen of menace. Now, the Coen Brothers revel in their love of the genre with the ambitious anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. As a big admirer of both their previous Westerns, I anticipated I’d be an easy mark for loving their latest. But while it’s stuffed with charming stars, colorful characters, and tales of life in the Wild West, this cowboy collection is clunky, indulgent, and ultimately underwhelming.

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Tim Blake Nelson as Buster Scruggs in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The film opens on a well-worn book, which contains six short stories: “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” “Near Algodones,” “Meal Ticket,” “All Gold Canyon,” “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” and “The Mortal Remains.” The first of these unconnected tales is the most entertaining by far. O Brother Where Art Thou‘s Tim Blake Nelson stars as the garrulous Buster Scruggs, who improvises quirky cowboy songs as easily as he mercilessly murders any fool who’d dare cross him. Buster does all this with a broad smile and without ever soiling his gleaming white getup. He makes for a strange yet enchanting introduction to this wobbly Western. There’s a charming ludicrousness to this segment that harkens back to Coen comedies like O Brother or The Hudsucker Proxy. When Buster enters a bustling saloon, he pats his vest and chaps down to shake loose the dust, and that dust lingers in a Buster-shaped cloud as he walks away. The violence in this segment is bloody, yet its execution is cartoonish, enacted with the cavalier imagination of Looney Tunes confrontations. But once we leave Buster behind, the film soon sours, turning bleaker and less satisfying in its endings.

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James Franco as Cowboy

In “Near Algodones,” James Franco pops by as a nameless bank robber plagued by bad luck. Despite some peculiar panache in form of a pot-covered gunman, squabbling deputies, and clever cuts, this segment is an overlong wind-up for a mediocre punchline (that’s spoiled in the trailer). A bearded Liam Neeson is haggard and nearly mute in the ponderous and morbid “Meal Ticket,” which follows a traveling show through a rocky patch. In “All Gold Canyon,” Tom Waits is crusty and captivating as a lone prospector who mines for gold in a stretch of glorious wilderness untouched by man. The grim but compelling “The Gal Who Got Rattled” stars Zoe Kazan as a doe-eyed damsel-in-distress in the midst of a treacherous wagon train journey. And in the cramped final segment “The Mortal Remains,” a motley crew of travelers (which includes Brendan Gleeson, Saul Rubinek, Chelcie Ross, Jonjo O’Neill, and Tyne Daly) shares awkward conversation while confined together in a speeding stagecoach.

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Tom Waits as the Prospector

Through these setups, there’s ample opportunity to revel in the rapturous beauty of sprawling deserts, echoing canyons, and babbling rivers. The ensemble is well cast, with each member swiftly establishing a familiar archetype, like the black-hatted rogue, the fretful damsel, the wild-eyed old coot, or the white-hatted hero. And most manage to bring a spark to the roles, even in unforgivingly brief screen times. (The Coen’s recurring collaborator Stephen Root is a standout.) But outside of the outrageous comedy of its first chapter, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs brings nothing fresh to the table. These stories are so familiar, you may have sworn you’ve seen this movie before. Too often their conclusions are crudely abrupt, making these segments feel more like sketches than screenplays. There’s no grace in the transitions from one story to the next, just the blunt device of cutting back to the book, its pages turning from the final paragraph of one chapter to an illustration for the next, followed by its title page.

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Martin Palmer as the Blubberer

Frustratingly, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs feels like the Coens are going through the motions. There are moments of jaw-dropping grandeur demanded of a big-screen Western. But then there’s an insufferable spattering of long-winded monologues, about bank robberies gone wrong, the loneliness of being a fur trapper, the business of being a bounty hunter, and one that is a perplexing pastiche cobbled together from bible quotes, famous speeches, and Shakespeare. Some of this seems self-aware, a winking indulgence. But that doesn’t make any of it less tedious or more cinematic. Ultimately, this Ballad feels like an unshapely heap of scraps, prettied up with Bruno Delbonnel’s sweeping cinematography, polished by a cavalcade of fine performers, and drenched in Coen whimsy. And yet I was bored.

Perhaps the problem is that the Coens’ took no real risks here. They leaned into their comfort zone of Americana, character actor charm, and rapid-fire banter that makes the audience chuckle at its musicality, even when the words are hollow. But their stories are tired tales of greed, fear, and death, hastily painted. Traipsing from one to the next, the Coens won’t dwell on what such old-fashioned cowboy stories might say to a modern audience. There’s nothing here that challenges Western conventions that are decades old. So, once more white men are heroes, even when they’re killers. White women are delicate prizes to be defended and won. Indigenous people are “savages” who exist purely to terrorize the first two groups. The west is a place of shattered dreams, dust, and death. Turn page. Repeat. The end. You’ve seen it before; the Coens have dusted it off to show it again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs made its US Premiere at the NYFF film festival.

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