Skip to main content

Cottonwood Heights Journal

Dan's Review: "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" is pure Coen Brothers fun

Nov 16, 2018 10:15AM ● By Dan Metcalf

Tim Blake Nelson in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs - © 2018 Netflix.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Netflix)

Rated R for some strong violence.

Starring Tim Blake Nelson, Willie Watson, David Krumholtz, E.E. Bell, Clancy Brown, James Franco, Stephen Root, Ralph Ineson, Jesse Luken, Liam Neeson, Harry Melling, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck, Grainger Hines, Jackamoe Buzzell, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Jonjo O’Neill, Saul Rubinek, Chelcie Ross.

Written and Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen.



The “western,” or film genre set in the Old West of the United States of the 1800s and early 1900s has been a dying art over the past 40 years, having peaked sometime in the late 1950s. That isn’t to say there haven’t been great westerns since then, with some of the more contemporary ones achieving high critical and lucrative success. For some, the western is considered as cheap entertainment for hicks and rubes. I never thought so, even with the western clichés; the protagonist in the white hat, the all-too-stylish costumes far removed from reality or the cartoonish portrayal of natives and townsfolk. I believe that behind every good western there is an almost Shakespearean theme; a conflicted sheriff dealing cowardice in High Noon, a teenager’s quest for justice in True Grit, the nature of violence in Unforgiven. Joel and Ethan Cohen have ventured into the western realms lately, with their excellent re-telling of True Grit (2011). Besides crafting great performances and beautiful (yet realistic) scenery, their real talent for storytelling lies in their written or adapted dialogue, another Bard-like quality. That talent is on full display in their latest film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

The film is actually a collection of disconnected short stories, each of them prefaced with an illustration and caption that sets the scene.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” stars Tim Blake Nelson as a crooning gunfighter who delights in his songs and his ability with a six-shooter. After entering a small town and dispatching with the local thugs with a gleeful grin, Scruggs meets his match in another singing gunslinger.

“Near Algodones” stars James Franco as a bank robber tripped up by a clever bank teller (Stephen Root), followed by a series of strange coincidences.

“Meal Ticket” stars Liam Neeson as an “Impresario” who exploits the oddity and talents of an artist (Harry Melling), a man with no arms or legs who performs small stage shows across the small towns reciting Shakespeare, historic documents and other monologues. When he finds a new act to exploit, the Impresario makes a tough call about the Artist.

“All Gold Canyon” stars Tom Waites as a prospector who discovers a motherlode of gold in a pristine valley, only to face an unforeseen competitor.

“The Gal Who Got Rattled” features Zoe Kazan as Alice, a betrothed homesteader on the trail to Oregon. When her dishonest brother dies on the prairie, she loses everything and turns to Billy Knapp (Bill Heck) one of the company’s trail bosses for comfort. After forming a new engagement with Billy, Alice and Billy’s partner face a band of marauding natives while trying to rescue a dog.

“The Mortal Remains” is an ensemble of characters riding in a stagecoach to an unknown destination. An Englishman (Jonjo O’Neill), an Irishman (Brendan Gleeson), a Lady (Tyne Daly), a Frenchman (Saul Rubinek) and a Trapper (Chelcie Ross). This segment is less of a story and more of a discussion between strangers over existential matters. The discussion takes a darker tone when they arrive at the destination and the travelers discover the true nature of the Englishman and Irishman’s occupation.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a delightful collection of quirky characters, odd tales, and dark comedy, on par with other Cohen brothers’ works. There are a few moments when the stories seem to drag on a little long (especially during the “All Gold Canyon” and “The Gal Who Got Rattled segments), yet each tale has its own distinct charm, even if a little disturbing at times.

The individual performances are especially unique and delightful throughout each story, and I never felt as though any particular actor stole the spotlight, making their contributions all the more collaborative and fun.

Interestingly, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is being released in two ways: one is through a limited release in select theaters (not in Utah) and the other is through your Netflix subscription, available on Nov. 16.

So, if you have a nice big screen TV, a decent sound system and a subscription, I highly recommend pulling up a recliner and enjoying the whimsy, beautiful western scenery, and humor of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs right there in your living room. It’s dang good. 

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs Trailer