Movie Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an anthology film of six unconnected tales all taking place in the wild west. It was directed and written by Joel and Ethan Coen and stars many great actors including Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Brendan Gleeson, and Tyne Daly.

It's hard to start a review of an anthology film especially as none of the segments are connected. As a friend of mine pointed out as well, it's hard to encourage people to view the entirety of the film as some of the segments leave one cold.

That is as the Coen brothers do, though. They are purveyors of Tex Avery style violence without the restrictions of the style, meaning these folks bleed and they bleed a lot and it's meant to be funny. What I will say is this series of vignettes really captures some elements of the Coens at their best, the violence that will shock some made me laugh in surprise, the use of dialogue while many characters are low brow all sound as if they swallowed a dictionary and a thesaurus rather than attend school and is all the better for their logorrhea, and then there are the wide eyed fantasy sequences that are silly in other ways.

Yet, with all of this familiarity and comfort, I also felt disappointment that more effort couldn't be put into the CGI of the moments. At times it looked as if the brothers weren't sure how to structure this device they've used sparingly in the past. I also found the lack of a moral thread disappointing as many of their films before have had, if not clear, at least attempted efforts at having a point. It's almost as if this film was something scraped together from an old idea for an anthology TV series they had in the vein of the many others we've been given over to on many major cable networks and streaming platforms.

As one can choose to watch or not watch any or all of these segments I will just write here a little about my favorite segment. It's called "All Gold Canyon" and it's the fourth segment in the sequence. The reason I like it is it's the one that comes closest to any kind of meaning. I may have also read too much into it, but I saw an allegory for human interactions with the natural world in it as well.

Tom Waits, in his other great performance of this year, plays a grizzled prospector on the search for gold. As he has no human partners, he talks to himself, he sings, he talks to the animals and he talks to the gold beneath his feet, which he calls Mr. Pocket, as in pocket full of gold. His method is unique and has to have taken him years to perfect. It's an almost zen sequence, but when another prospector shows up, it all goes awry.

It's the sequence I would tell people to see if they only saw one of them. If I picked a second it would be "The Mortal Remains," which is as eerie as it is funny. If you prefer your gallows humor without ever seeing the gallows, this one is the one for you. The incredible and ridiculous monologue by the lonely trapper played by Chelcie Ross is just magnificent.

I knew this one would be a little difficult, but I think it's worth seeing if you're a Coen fan and you need something to tide you over to the next brilliant original idea or adaptation. As I've repeated here, if one of the segments is not to your liking, skip it and find the next one.

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