Review: "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" Has a Little Bit of Everything

Isaiah Simeon ‘22 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Directors Ethan and Joel Coen attempt the ultimate flex in their new Netflix film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, by telling six compelling, individual stories of the Old West in the span of a feature-length film.
They succeed.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a six-part anthology of stories all focused on the new frontier of the West in post-civil war United States, featuring the tales of a fourth-wall-breaking gunslinger (Tim Blake Nelson), an eccentric prospector (Tom Waits), a posh Bounty Hunter (Jonjo O’Neill), and more.

Martin Palmer and James Franco in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Photo Credit: Netflix.
It is remarkably impressive just how different each short feels, and yet they all remain so cohesive and transition from one to the next seamlessly. Due to the individuality of each short, the Coen brothers are able to run the gauntlet for tones, emotions, and themes. They bounce from over-the-top goofy, to gut-wrenching, to heartwarming, and everything in between, all without missing a beat.
One fear with films such as these is that the stories will get lost in each other, messages will get muddled, and nothing will stand out. This is not the case with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Each tale is so engrossing, that it’s easy to forget that they are apart of a bigger collection. It only takes a few minutes to completely buy-in to an individual story.
That being said, few of the individual stories would hold up on their own, but that’s that whole point. While it is six-stories, it is meant to be consumed as one package, and it benefits from that. The weaker stories are propped up by the stronger ones. This was a smart change from the original plan, which saw the films being released as separate episodes.
Ralph Ineson in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Photo Credit: Netflix.
The film had an impressive cast, although the nature of the movie results in each actor feeling underused. Liam Neeson portrays a showman who travels with a quadriplegic orator (Harry Melling), and while the two’s performances are subtle, they are amazing. It can hardly be put into words just how much Melling’s facial expressions contribute to building the tone of the story.
Nelson plays Buster Scruggs himself, and while his story is nothing special, his character is so outrageous and wacky that he makes it work. James Franco leads one of the shorts, but his character is essentially along for the ride of the story and does not have much to do.
The best story also goes to Nelson and Melling’s traveling show. It’s so good. The short, titled Meal Ticket, follows the duo as they travel from town to town, with Melling, the quadriplegic orator, reciting famous speeches and telling stories to an ever-dwindling audience. Another standout short follows a prospector (Waits) digging for gold along a river bank. Admittedly, on paper, that sounds boring, but rest assured, it works.
Tom Waits in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Photo Credit: Netflix.
All of the shorts do a tremendous job of capturing the isolation and untamed nature of the new frontier. The saloons, the wagons, the stagecoaches, all feel completely contained, separate from civilization.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is so terrific, and so varied, that there is something almost everyone will enjoy. Not every short is a hit, but the gems make the slower ones worth getting through.
Overall Grade A
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