Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

From the Coen Brothers comes six tales from the wild frontier. In The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, singing outlaw Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) enters into a town where he finally may have met his match. In Near Algodones, a Cowboy (James Franco) faces the consequences of a bank robbery gone wrong. In Meal Ticket, an Impresario (Liam Neeson) presents nightly performances by a limbless Artist (Harry Melling). In All Gold Canyon, an old Prospector (Tom Waits) tracks down a pocket of gold. In The Girl Who Got Rattled, Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan) joins a Wagon Train to Oregon and gets friendly with its leader Billy Knapp (Bill Heck). Finally, in The Mortal Remains, a Lady (Tyne Daly), Frenchman (Saul Rubinek), and Trapper (Chelcie Ross) converse with a mysterious Englishman (Jonjo O’Neill) and Irishman (Brendan Gleeson) on board a stagecoach.

Joel and Ethan Coen return with the Western anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Each of the six stories in the film are presented as different chapters in a book of tales from the wild frontier. The Coens are firmly in lighthearted and comedic territory with this film, even though many of the stories tackle dark subject matter. The film kicks off with a bang with the titular story, which stars Tim Blake Nelson as an outlaw, who sings on the range, while also being incredible skilled at shooting people in create ways. Another standout story in the anthology is All Gold Canyon, starring a very grizzled looking Tom Waits as a gold seeking prospector.

Like many anthology films, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs has many highs and lows. Without a doubt, the film peaks early with the very comedic and entertaining opening segment, which could have very well been the basis for the entire film. Probably the segment I connected with the least was Meal Ticket, which went to the effort of cast Liam Neeson in a role, where hardly says anything. Also, since each segment is essentially an independent short film, it is easy to notice the film’s 2h12m length, especially during the fifth segment The Girl Who Got Rattled, which was the longest of the film.

The anthology format allows The Ballad of Buster Scruggs to have a large and diverse cast, which includes Coen Brothers alumni, such as Tim Blake Nelson, Clancy Brown, and Stephen Root, mixed in with newcomers to the fold, such as James Franco, Zoe Kazan, and Tom Waits. The cast of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is so large that some of the recognizable faces in the film only appear for a brief one scene cameo.

Altogether, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a generally entertaining throwback to the Westerns of old.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is available for streaming on Netflix and is also opening for a theatrical run at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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Sean Kelly Author

Sean Patrick Kelly is a self-described über-geek, who has been an avid film lover for all his life. He graduated from York University in 2010 with an honours B.A. in Cinema and Media Studies and he likes to believe he knows what he’s talking about when he writes about film (despite occasionally going on pointless rants).