I think there is a legitimate argument to be made that the Coen Brothers are the greatest filmmakers of all-time; for three decades, their films are creative, imaginative, and span countless genres, niches, and admittedly are varied in quality. Any perspective filmmaker owes it to themselves to immerse themselves within the Coens’ filmography, as their films have elevated and enhanced the medium itself. The Coens’ latest, the western anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, has many noteworthy qualities, and although not all of the segments are of equal quality, the craftsmanship and care put into the material is uniformly excellent.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs follows six different storylines, each told in a short vignette. One focuses on a singing outlaw (Tim Blake Nelson), one on a down on his luck bank robber (James Franco), one on two traveling performers (Liam Neeson and Harry Melling), one on a crazed old man searching for gold (Tom Waits), one on a young woman that experiences love and tragedy on a wagon trail (Zoe Kazan), and one on a elderly woman who journeys with a group of bounty hunters (Tyne Daly).
By far, Tim Blake Nelson’s storyline as the titular Buster Scruggs is the most compelling; Nelson’s good hearted, musically inclined gunslinger is an absolute delight and one of the best screen characters in a long time, and boasts some great original songs. The James Franco and Zoe Kazan stories are both also quite compelling; while Franco’s is more comedic and Kazan’s is more dramatic, they both explore cruel irony and feature shocking twists and sudden developments.
I liked the Tom Waits story, as it relied on his strengths as an actor to single handedly tell a story, but it also dragged on a bit for me. The same can be said for the street performer story and the bounty hunter story; they’re beautifully shot, with the Coens’ signature unique color pallets and gorgeous, portrait style cinematography, but they also overstay their welcome and aren’t as inherently as interesting.
So The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a bit of a mixed bag, but even a mediocre Coen Brothers film is quite an achievement. Throughout the film, I marveled at their creativity in how it was shot and how the characters interacted; while their are few directors as strong, there’s simply no writers that match the Coens’ wit. Say what you want about the film- nobody else could have made this. Grade: B+