31 Days of Film: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
It’s that time of year again. December has rolled around, everything has ground to a halt, its somehow both 20 degrees inside and 90 inside, the incessant racket of Christmas music persists, the Premier League is always on. but most importantly—it’s movie season. Last year I failed in my attempt to watch 31 movies in the 31 days of December only managing to make it to 25 movies. But this year I’m determined and we’re starting off strong with the Coen Brothers’ most recent movie, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the second of Netflix’s two prestige dramas released in recent weeks.
Oh also, no ratings this year. Assigning a number to a movie a day after watching it is both nearly impossible and also, I think distracts from the overall point. I can say nothing but good things about a movie and give it a 70 and people will say I didn’t like it. Which is bullshit, this isn’t org chem, a 70 is a pretty good movie.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a series of six vignettes set in the old west that explore everything from life and death to finding beauty in the world around you. At the time of writing this I’ve only seen Buster Scruggs the one time which is not an ideal amount of times to watch a Coen movie and have to write about it. I have no doubt there are connecting threads and references that I’ve missed. But it is definitely a vintage Coen Brothers’ movie. It has the irreverent comedy of some of their early classics like Fargo and The Big Lebowski and the unflinching violence of films like No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading. And as with all of their films the Joel and Ethan Coen display an expertise for working with great underappreciated actors. This is a Coen Brothers’ movie for Coen fans, each of the six stories feel like they’re referencing specific films from the Coen Brothers’ past and it’s a real joy to watch.
The film opens with the titular story, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, that sets the tone nicely. which follows Scruggs a singing cowboy with an inhuman knack for killing. Scruggs is played by Tim Blake Nelson—which is a bit odd in a movie that also starts Tom Waits—but Nelson lends a chipper and optimistic air to the character that I suppose Waits is not well suited for. The opening act is my least favorite of the sixth which is odd because its musical nature and comically absurd situations reference directly one of my favorite Coen films, O’ Brother Where Art Thou. But there is something in the brevity of the first story and the abruptness with which is ends that I found jarring. Despite that however, I love Nelson’s performance, his dead eyed cocky smile and the way he swaggers through the scenes which include not one but two full musical numbers is quite fun to watch. Especially for an actor who I think is highly underrated and that most people would probably know him best for Fantastic Four and Holes is a real shame.
The best stories of the six are All Gold Canyon and The Mortal Remains. The former is the story of a prospector digging for gold in a valley by a stream over the course of a couple of days alone with only his horse and nature. The of self-discovery and overcoming death and the obstacles in front of oneself reminds me—possibly for no particular reason at all—of Inside Llewyn Davis and Barton Fink the Coen’s most introspective and isolated films. Tom Waits performance is great and the Coen’s shoot the expanse of the valley so beautifully. The Mortal Remains seems the most complex of the six on first watch. As with so much of the Coen’s work it is a treatise on death, the inevitability of such, and what may come after. The story follows five passengers, who could not be more different, as they travel in an eerie stagecoach to Fort Morgan. Along the journey they discuss the nature of humanity, faith, and morality. At the end of the journey the five passengers enter an empty hotel, some reluctantly. The segment is beautifully crafted down to every detail suggesting that three of the passengers, are souls entering the afterlife, one to be finally reunited with her late husband. I particularly loved the detail of none of them having any luggage despite the top of the stagecoach being packed full of it. And the stagecoach driver even when begged to stop seems either not to hear or as Thigpen, one of the passengers, points out will not stop for any reason much like the approach of death itself.
I have only great things to say about The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The Coen Brothers continue to prove time and again that they are some of Hollywood’s best writers and directors. I only wish this had gotten a real wide theatrical release so that more people could have seen it in theaters or if it was to be released on Netflix the way it was make it a TV show. I would have loved more stories like the ones we got or maybe just to expand on the six already here. But if my only complaint about a movie is that I wanted more, I think that’s a good sign.