The Ballad of Buster Scruggs starts with a sequence featuring a storybook laid across a coffee table. This is an all too familiar narrative device we have seen repeatedly. It also directly informs the audience we are not in store for a typical Coen Bros tale but an anthology picture. It is an impossible feat for the Coen Brothers to deliver a flat out bad motion picture in their great pantheon of spiritual masterpieces. With their less regarded work, the Coen Brothers frequently pass their shelved scripts off to other filmmakers instead. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a work of deeply mythic and poetic qualities, clearly could have been one of those said productions. It was reported written years ago and initially pitched as a six-part Netflix miniseries to be edited down into a two-hour feature film.
What sets the film off is the pure and pitch-perfect installment that truly respects the fanatical side of the great Western genre it is paying homage to. The great Tim Blake Nelson plays the titular character Buster Scruggs in a performance best described as a delightfully highly energized yet mild-mannered singing sociopathic outlaw out for carnage, and retributive reckoning who’s the entire stretch of screentime will end up being one of 2018’s great cinematic joys. The forthcoming installments churn from darkly humorous to tremendous heartbreak to legitimately disturbing, yet hold pure Coen Brothers satisfaction. Anthology films are a strange force for the cinematic screen. They follow the same general pattern and foundations of traditional storytelling yet are formatted individually and meticulously curated in a specific order, but have an obligation to serve intangible themes. This one is built off a familiar framework of irony and parody scoped with relentless cruelty, vengeance, tragedy, morality, and life through the lens of the old West told with the Coens’ signature absurdist nihilism while holding a primal human component at heart.
The problem that lies with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is it is an undoubtedly front-loaded work. The initial installment serves as an overloaded motion of the farce foolishness we know and love from our film duo. Still, it then moves off to quieter, more ominous, and obviously played out storytelling missteps. The second best installment is also the second presented one, lead by James Franco, which carries a weighty contemplative payoff. The rest of the segments are perfectly engaging yet lack narratively to complement each story that presided. By the end of the film, you lose focus on what Buster Scruggs is exactly trying to say overall. While it’s not going to be regarded as one of the Coens’ finest and groundbreaking hours, and it also never fully recovers from its marvelous beginnings, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an exquisitely made, well-crafted, complex film that subversively reexamines a familiar genre trope through the layers of the classical American frontier.
P.S., please give the great character actor Tim Blake Nelson all the recognition possible for well worthy performance. Whether a supporting actor recognition or just plainly cherishing his complex of its titular ballad. [B-]