There are few filmmakers better than the Coen Bros. at their best (Fargo). There are also few more frustrating filmmakers than the Coen Bros. at their most mediocre (Inside Llewyn Davis). The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is thoroughly mediocre.
Netflix is hedging its bets with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs by releasing it online and in select theaters at the same time, and understandably so: It lacks the bite, sharp writing and social commentary that usually comprise the brothers’ best work. And because it’s composed of six unconnected vignettes set in the Old West, it also lacks cohesiveness—nothing binds these stories together except the setting, which isn’t enough. It’s being called an anthology, which would indicate a common thread among the stories. Not so.
The first fable, also titled “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” sets the uneven tone that may be the only commonality in the whole enterprise. Tim Blake Nelson stars as Buster, a brash and flamboyant singing cowboy who has the fastest hands in the West. Although everyone and everything around Buster is deadly serious, he’s in his own world of whimsy. All the way down to his white cowboy/dude get-up, he just doesn’t fit in. It’s unusual in a “what is this?” kind of way, though you can tell it’s trying to be quirky with a splash of violence.
The second tale, “Near Algodones,” stars James Franco as a bank robber who’s not very good at his job. He loses his first “stick ’em up” attempt to a feisty bank teller (Stephen Root), then goes on the run and encounters Native Americans. We’re reminded of what an awful time it must have been to be alive, living in a land that isn’t exactly lawless but certainly lacks law and order. Once again, a splash of hyper-violence upholds the level of squirm the audience must be feeling.
The best segments are the third and fourth. “Meal Ticket” follows Liam Neeson’s aptly named “Impresario” as he travels the Old West with the “Artist,” a talented orator played by Henry Melling. They travel from town to town, stopping and setting up in each location so the Artist can recite the Constitution, parts of the Bible, and other oratory gems of the day. The catch is that the Artist has no arms or legs, which is part of the act’s appeal while at the same time a great burden on the Impresario, obligated to care for him. How this all ends is admittedly surprising. In “All Gold Canyon,” Tom Waits plays a grizzled old prospector mining for gold. He has some success, but complications ensue; twists and surprises abound in what is both the simplest and most dramatically successful part of the film.
The fifth and sixth segments, “The Gal Who Got Rattled” and “The Mortal Remains,” are both overlong and heavily metaphorical. After more than an hour-and-a-half of movie, leaving the two most meta pieces for the end is questionable. The Coens are asking the potentially fatigued audience to mentally engage even more deeply as they limp down the home stretch. Completely flipping the order of the segments would’ve made more sense in terms of watchability.
One of the auteur characteristics the Coen Bros. employ (as they did in True Grit) is that life isn’t always explicable and, often, the acts and reacts we experience don’t make sense. This is effective when the writing and acting are so superb that the story (or, in this effort, stories) can take on an element of randomness and still be compelling. Sadly, that’s not the case with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. It’s more like How the West Was Lost.