The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – A Movie Review

The Coen Brothers are filmmakers who have a long established track record but are so idiosyncratic that it is unwise to assume anything about their new works without confirmation.  They are extremely inventive and original and also have an extremely dark sense of humor.  I was a big fan of their work until I saw “No Country for Old Men.”  Although I consider that movie a very good film the nihilistic story line coinciding with the state of affairs in the world in 2007 created a visceral reaction in me such that I avoided all of their subsequent films.  This continued until they produced True Grit.  At that point, because of the subject matter, curiosity got the better of me and I watched it. Well it was a very enjoyable film and for that reason I decided to give this other western film from the Coen Brothers a chance.

Last night I watched the Ballad of Buster Scruggs and true to form it was completely unpredictable.  Or rather, in a predictably Coen Brothers manner it was extremely inventive and original and also had an extremely dark sense of humor.  The movie is made of a series of six vignettes that share an Old West theme.

  • “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”
  • “Near Algodones”
  • “Meal Ticket”
  • “All Gold Canyon”
  • “The Gal Who Got Rattled”
  • “The Mortal Remains”

Because they’re all short stories I won’t spoil any of them by narrating them.  None of the stories are related and the only recurring theme is the cruel irony that fate weaves into every story.  Mixed in with this bleak picture are varying portions of humor, absurdity, cruelty, sadness, warmth and even affection.  But the overarching impression is bitter humor.  Several of the character sketches are intricate and appealing.  Others are caricatures. But each of them is appropriate to the story in which it occurs.  In one story having to do with a gold prospector, “All Gold Canyon,” the cinematography is extremely fine and the landscapes striking.  In one story, “Meal Ticket,” there are grotesque aspects that are a bit off-putting so those who don’t care for such things should be forewarned.

Maybe because 2019 isn’t as depressing as 2007 I don’t find myself repelled by this movie as I was with their earlier one. Maybe it’s the historical separation that allows me emotional immunity from the dark content.  I will recommend this movie for those who have a strong bent for darker content.  Don’t look for any affirmation of life in this film. A sardonic leer is what it seems to offer in my estimation.

8 thoughts on “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – A Movie Review

  • January 29, 2019 at 11:17 am
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    “…recurring theme is the cruel irony that fate weaves into every story. Mixed in with this bleak picture are varying portions of humor, absurdity, cruelty, sadness, warmth and even affection.”

    Hmmm, sort of like The Twilight Zone? 😉

    Reply
    • January 29, 2019 at 11:41 am
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      The Coen Brothers aren’t hacks. But they can be extremely bleak. And sometimes they can exceed my tolerance for the grotesque. But they have done good work, sometimes very good.

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    • January 29, 2019 at 12:19 pm
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      This review also called to mind for me some of the _Twilight Zone_ episodes you’ve reviewed, photog. The Coen Brothers aren’t hacks, though, haha.

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      • January 29, 2019 at 12:46 pm
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        Well, I wasn’t trying to call Serling a hack by comparison. He has his good and his bad days. Plus I like SF&F so knocking its adherents isn’t a smart strategy for me either. I was just saying that the Coen Brothers are legitimate even when I don’t care for their results.

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  • January 29, 2019 at 12:18 pm
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    I’ve always loved Coen Brothers flicks, but have yet to see this one. It sounds exceptionally dark.
    If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend _Hail, Caesar!_ A fine Coen Bros. movie that lovingly (and hilariously) portrays Hollywood in the waning days of the big studio system. You’d like it, I think.

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    • January 29, 2019 at 12:43 pm
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      Well, they have darker. Barton Fink is pretty bleak. If someone is a big Coen Bros. fan I think a distinction is made between dark bizarre elements which are thought of as comedy and more realistic aspects which would be taken more seriously. Say, the difference between Barton Fink and No Country for Old Men. Barton Fink is obviously some kind of fever dream but No Country’ is somewhat realistic. Some vignettes in Buster Scruggs are quite unreal in that sense. So those would be called comedy. But they’re still pretty bleak.

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      • January 29, 2019 at 2:13 pm
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        I’ve got to see _Barton Fink_. My older brother is a big fan, but I’ve never seen the old thing.
        RE: the “hack” comment–I see what you’re saying. From what you’ve written, Serling had some great episodes, and some are just recycling ideas from other episodes. I love your description of a certain episode type: a guy running around screaming hysterically while people ignore him or look puzzled.

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        • January 29, 2019 at 3:11 pm
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          Barton Fink is truly bizarre. After you watch it tell me your reaction. Yes, Serling is a mixed bag. Partly I think it’s a symptom of his era. The method acting school was all the rage so standing around emoting was seen as daring.

          Reply

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