Rob Reviews "The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs"
OK, kids… it’s time for Story Time with your Uncle Rob:
Back in the day, going to the movies was seen as a special event. (Kind of like Red Lobster required your Sunday best clothes, but that is another story for another time.) The family would circle a night at the movie theater on the calendar, and when that time came, we were treated to not only trailers, but there were things like news updates, sports highlights, and even chapters of larger stories with heroes and villains of all sorts. You know, kind of like the shorts Pixar still does to this day with their movies, but picture that ALL THE TIME. Sometimes, they would be self-contained stories, but most of the time they had a “cliff hanger” ending that would dare people not to come to the theater the next weekend to see how it all worked out, and these were the things that inspired a number of filmmakers with George Lucas citing them specifically as the inspiration for “Star Wars”.
It was always kind of neat to see some of these in different places as I have gotten older, but I have always been fascinated by the self-contained stories because their writers could tell an entire tale in less than fifteen minutes in most cases. Joel and Ethan Coen have harkened back to this time by taking six such stories and putting them into one film with “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.”
This is an anthology film in the truest sense of the phrase. Outside of taking place in the old west, none of the stories are connected to each other. In the title story, a singing gunslinger (Tim Blake Nelson) travels across the land just trying to pursue the good life, “Near Algodones” features a bank robber (James Franco) that may not be as good as he thinks, “Meal Ticket” chronicles a traveling show headed by an impresario (Liam Neeson) and his very specially talented actor (Harry Melling), “All Gold Canyon” is the tale of a prospector (Tom Waits) looking to strike it big, “The Gal Who Got Rattled” deals with Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan), a young lady traveling across the country in search of a new life, and “The Mortal Remains” deals with a group of stagecoach travelers (Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Jonjo O’Neill, Saul Rubinek, and Chelcie Ross) on their way to… somewhere. I have read that this went back and forth between a collection film and separating the stories to make a mini-series, and I would have been okay with it going either way. These stories are all told well in an fifteen to twenty-five minute time frame, and it was refreshing to see a film like this where the stories don’t HAVE to connect; they can simply be works unto themselves. They share a simple shooting style that frames that old school vibe of old west stories while not looking too old school that makes the dark moments even darker, the light moments that much lighter, and the moments in-between that much better. There isn’t even a narrator that bridges the gaps, and instead simply and literally the turn of a page in the much larger book that shares the title with the film, which gives the overall work even cooler.
If there is any criticism here, it is that I might have put the stories in a different order. There is not even a thread of genre that the stories have in common, as it runs the gambit from comedy to tragedy, from absurd to evil, and even satire to obscure, so putting them in any order would subject itself to discussion by film fans. I cannot really go into this in this forum without flirting with spoilers, but I definitely would have switched some things around to take the audience on a journey that would have smoother transition.
Basically seen as “The Twilight Zone” in the old west, “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a film that is more than worth your time, and don’t feel bad if you choose to watch it in pieces over sitting through all six of its tales in one sitting. And maybe you want to “remix” it yourself to make it more palatable, so go for it.