Movie Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs



Starring: Tim Blake Nelson, Tom Waits, Liam Neeson
Directed By: Joel and Ethan Coen (No Country for Old Men, Fargo)
Rated: R
Runtime: 2 hours 13 minutes

          The Coen Brothers have given us such classic films as The Big Lebowski, Fargo, and No Country for Old Men.  The latter giving The Coens Oscars for Best Picture, Screenplay, and Directing.  They can do drama, they can do black comedy as well.  The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is at times both.  Set in the Old West, the movie tells six separate stories that do not intertwine even when you think they should and/or will.

          This isn’t The Coen Brothers first foray into westerns, the John Wayne remake from 2010 True Grit, saw 10 Oscar nominations.  I bring up The Coens history because they have a wide ranging catalog of movies over the last thirty plus years.  They can do a lot of things very well and they aren’t afraid to try something different and weird.

          The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is as different a narrative as you might ever see.  Again, it’s just six short stories.  No connection.  Just six short stories.  So it’s a little difficult for me to sit here and explain each one to you.  I’m not going to do that for you here tonight.  Some of them are funny.  Some are violent.  Some of them are weird.  The Coens wrote each individual story over the past 25 years or so, and this was originally going to be a TV project.  I think that would have been the better choice here.  Flesh each one out to 42 minutes.  Run a brief season of six episodes.  Air it on TV as The Coen Brothers Present: XYZ.  Then have other people direct/write the future seasons.  As a movie, it’s just a little odd to have six stories that don’t have anything to do with each other.

          And the place to make your weird little passion project is Netflix.  They’re dumping big time money to big time directors to make their movies.  No matter how successful or unsuccessful they may be.  Next week, I’ll be reviewing another one.  Roma from Oscar-winning director of Gravity, Alfoso Cuaron.  If you’re having trouble selling a big time studio on a piece of work, sell it to Netflix.  They’ll give you the money and be hands off in the production process.  And since it’s a weird little movie, more people will probably see it on Netflix versus an art house theater.

          I really loved the first two stories in here, and thought this might be one of the best movies of 2018.  It was charming, surprising, and moved pretty quick.  But, for me, this movie ground to a halt with the third installment.  Picked up briefly with the 4th and 5th segments, but crash landed again with the finale.  It was really an up and down experience for me.  The loose theme of all these Western tales is death.  Someone dies in some form or fashion in each chapter.  But throughout The Coens history there’s been a lot of death.  Someone dies in most every Coen movie. 

          The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is making a lot of critics year end best lists.  I’m just not seeing the same movie.  The parts I liked were really really good.  But the parts I didn’t like were really really bad.  Of the six stories, I didn’t think any of them were just OK.  I either loved or hated them.  It’s The Coen Brothers career in a nut shell!  I’ve pretty much either loved or hated anything I’ve ever seen from them.  Sometimes their movies are funny, sometimes serious.  This movie perfectly sums up their entire career. 

          I give them points for the creativity.  It’s a unique movie.  That is sometimes movie reviewer code for weird, but not here.  It’s an original storytelling device.  Must watch for Coen Completionists.  For the casual movie watcher, I’m not so sure you should waste your time.

On a scale of "See It/Stream It/Skip It", I'm going to vote "Stream It".  There’s enough people that MIGHT like it, I don’t want to say Skip It right away.  I truly think there are parts that deserve to be seen, but not the entire movie.

If you liked True Grit, O Brother Where Art Thou, and Once Upon a Time in the West you might like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

2.5 out of 5 stars

Not enough there to recommend, not lacking enough to immediately dismiss


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