Comfortable and Furious

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Netflix 2018)

The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs (Netflix 2018) is a Netflix original anthology movie by the Coen Brothers. It has a 93% Fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes and a 78 at Metacritic. Your enjoyment of it most likely will hinge on how much you like the Coen Brothers movies as a sub-genre.

The film used the technique of a storybook to transition from the separately themed segments. This is a simple enough, time honored device, that can work quite well. Otherwise, the segments had absolutely nothing to do with each other except for all of them taking place in the Old West.

The Coens use this technique to indulge their eclectic tastes. The segments, some very short, reflected the different styles they have employed in their movies throughout the years. Because of this, the movie feels more like a Crib Notes greatest hits collection than a full fledged theatrical experience. The Coens also seem to relish tragedy in all its forms, and most of these segments end in someone’s death, be it humorous, ironic, heartbreaking or deserved. It is the Old West after all.

Most of it was quite enjoyable, though I wouldn’t quite put it on the level of some of their greatest movies, despite the considerable flair and ingenuity suffusing the best of these segments.

The Coens are one of the rare birds in the small Hollywood auteur aviary (housing other auteurs like David Lynch, Woody Allen, and Steven Spielberg) who have such a great track record that they are allowed full creative control of their projects. No one is foolproof, and The Coens have had their missteps. INTOLERABLE CRUELTY, for example, and the sophomoric remake of THE LADY KILLERS, which only found it’s Black Comedy footing in the last 20 minutes.

They also have their really good movies that flopped at the box office. A SERIOUS MAN, BURN AFTER READING, and THE HUDSUCKER PROXY for example.

Yet, there are a number of truly classic movies like BLOOD SIMPLE, RAISING ARIZONA, BARTON FINK, FARGO, THE BIG LEBOWSKI, O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN,TRUE GRIT, and INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, to name a few. I also personally enjoyed HAIL CAESAR!, which got generally mediocre reviews.

What were my favorite segments in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs? There was the title opener, which was half LOONEY TUNES and half RAISING ARIZONA. There was the Wagon Train segment which had the subtlety and harshness of TRUE GRIT. There was the segment which brilliantly cast Tom Waits as a Silver Prospector and suddenly veered into BLOOD SIMPLE territory. There was the shortest segment, starring James Franco, which employed literal gallows humor. The weaker segments included Liam Neeson as a cruel exploiter, and the final segment, which was dull and bewildering.

I still don’t know what that final segment was supposed to be about. I suspect it was something of the supernatural variety. For me, the final segment, especially, earned a great big WTF?

Still, like the Coen’s remarkable movie output, the hits transcend the misses in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and I liked it.



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