Movie ReviewsThe Ballad of Buster Scruggs – 2018’s Most Unique Film Experience

Netflix is not well known for its quality movies, in fact its model of quantity over quality has created a lot of subpar content throughout the years, but it seems that they plan to end off 2018 with a bang. After the release of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, The Kindergarten Teacher and Hold The Dark, Netflix seems to have found its stride. That is without mentioning the buzz surrounding their other end-of-year releases Outlaw King and Roma, a Best Oscar frontrunner. With news that the Coen Brothers have jumped ship to the world of online media, could Netflix be changing the industry for the better?

Synopsis: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a six-part Western anthology film, a series of tales about the American frontier told through the unique and incomparable voice of Joel and Ethan Coen. Each chapter tells a distinct story about the American West. (Netflix)

Starring: Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, and Liam Neeson

Writers: Joel and Ethan Coen

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Rating: R (United States)

Running Time: 132mins


The Coen Brothers are most well-known for their dialogue heavy dramatic scenes and morbidly dark comedy. This unique style of storytelling has allowed them to have quite a successful career with Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country For Old Men and True Grit headlining their expansive filmography. Unfortunately, with the rise in big blockbuster franchises (Marvel, Star Wars) and B-rate action movies (The …Has Fallen series, really anything Gerard Butler makes), films like those the Coen Brothers make tend to be passed on due to their lack of box office numbers. Thankfully, these films may have found a new home on streaming services.

This six chapter Western anthology begins with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs which follows the life of a cocky gunslinger and singer (Nelson) who narratives his adventures to the audience. Near Algodones is next as it follows an unlucky outlaw (Franco) through his repeated near-death experiences. Meal Ticket looks at the entertainment industry as a greedy travelling salesman (Neeson) goes from city-to-city with his star performer. The story shifts to All Gold Canyon with the struggles of the gold rush as a desperate gold prospector (Tom Waits) searches for his big score. Next, The Gal Who Got Raddled as a wagon train passenger (Zoe Kazan) finds herself lost when she is stuck at a crossroads both physically and emotionally. Finally, The Mortal Remains follows the passengers of a stagecoach as they discuss their differing ideologies leading up to the arrival at their final destination.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs plays out like the perfect analogy of how we view streamed content. It’s six mini-stories, each separate in narrative, but common in setting and theme as they focus on the huge landscape of the Wild West. This feels like watching a limited series with each chapter playing out like a new episode that shows the filmmakers’ perspectives on the morbidly tragic themes of living during this brutal time period. While this may not cater to an audience watching a film of this length in theatres, it’s the perfect way to watch content at home with these breaks between stories acting as perfect intermissions to get errands and chores done because let’s face it, odds are the majority of your streaming time is spent multitasking.

Each story has its own Coen-esque style from comic relief to poetic tragedy, a cinematic love story to philosophical conversation; they dissect their filmmaking techniques and accent each in a separate tale. While some of these stories could have easily been expanded to a full feature-length film, it’s understandable to see why they weren’t as the short snippets of these characters and the harsh realities of their lives make for an interesting discussion on the human condition. Unfortunately, the last short feels a bit anticlimactic compared to some of the others.

Short number four’s idea of the old west as a horrible land ripe with opportunity would have been the perfect note to wrap up all of these stories on. In terms of rank they would be:

  1. Meal Ticket
  2. All Gold Canyon
  3. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
  4. The Gal That Got Rattled
  5. The Mortal Remains
  6. Near Algodones

The premise isn’t the only thing that works here as the Coen Brothers have created a tightly written script with some amazing one-liners and thought-provoking conversations. These are brought to life by surprisingly deep performances by the cast as each short manages to have fleshed out crazy characters that we’ve come to expect from these filmmakers. Of this large ensemble cast, the standouts were Nelson, Neeson and Waits. The film is also beautifully shot between the framing and western landscapes showing the experience that they have with the genre.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an inventive Western dramedy that allows the Coen Brothers to do what they do best. While the format of this film may not be for everyone, the smart, tightly-written stories are beautifully woven together by an immersive world that is filled by some strong, charismatic and cooky characters giving us six of their stories for the price of one. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is the Coen Brothers at their best and proves to be 2018’s most unique film experience.

Score: 9/10

On top of writing reviews for this site, I also post video reviews on my YouTube channel The Film Fanatic where we post other content like countdown videos, movie recommendations, script analyses and more.

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