Joel and Ethan Coen have put their inimitable stamp on just about every film genre there is. Their movie The Ballad of Buster Scruggs isn’t even really their first attempt at an anthology. They previously turned in a segment in two different anthology collections. The first was for the film Paris, je t’aime, where each story is set in the City of Lights. The second was a three minute short for a film commissioned as a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival, called Chacun son cinema.
Scruggs, however, is all Coen Brothers, from start to finish. The film contains no out-and-out clunkers, but, as is the case with most anthologies, the whole is a bit uneven. The most troubling thing about the picture is the Coens’ use of indigenous peoples in two of the stories as mere props. If their aim was to pay homage to the Westerns of long ago, when indigenous peoples were portrayed as nothing more than blood-thirsty savages, they achieved their goal.
In those old tales of the frontier, and particularly with the story titled The Gal Who Got Rattled, indigenous peoples are hell-bent on killing the white protagonists, while the movie conveniently ignores the fact that whites were committing a genocide against those same people. Just like the Coens’ tone-deaf comments about diversity in Hollywood from a few years ago, making a movie now that features an oppressed class of people as faceless, terrorizing murderers is a bad look.
There are, however, also moments of brilliant dark humor and touching pathos in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Tim Blake Nelson, an actor I normally dislike for being much too broad, is gleefully just right in the heightened world the Coens create for him. His character, the eponymous Buster Scruggs, is responsible for a grisly yet comical death that had me laughing out loud at its preposterousness.
The saddest of the six short films is Meal Ticket. It stars Liam Neeson as an unnamed impresario who travels from one tiny shanty town to the next with a quadruple amputee named Harrison, who recites great speeches and dramatic soliloquies for whatever tips the audience will donate. The profit they make becomes smaller and smaller until Neeson’s character sees the future of entertainment in an act featuring a chicken that can do arithmetic. The story (especially the climax) is a mournful meditation on doing what it takes to survive in the world.
The other standout story in the bunch is All Gold Canyon. It features Tom Waits as an ancient prospector who finally finds the gold deposit of his dreams, which he lovingly refers to as Mr. Pocket. Waits is just about the perfect actor to bring the character to life. We want nothing more than for the old prospector to find what he’s after, and we hope everything will turn out alright when he is confronted by a young man who wants Mr. Pocket for himself.
The story Near Algodones is probably the weakest of them all. It’s diverting filler at best, but with a hilarious turn from the great Stephen Root. The final tale, The Mortal Remains, features some great performances from the likes of Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, and Saul Rubinek. The spooky tale of a pair of bounty hunters who may or may not have moved on to their next job before they’ve delivered the cargo from their last is enjoyable, but runs on a little too long.
Scruggs is a fun enough experiment for the Coens – this is their first film shot with digital cameras, and was released through Netflix – but it doesn’t rise anywhere near their greatest work.