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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs Movie Review

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018) movie poster The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Theatrical Release: November 8, 2018 / Running Time: 133 Minutes / Rating: R

Writers/Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Cast: Tyne Daly (Lady), James Franco (Cowboy), Brendan Gleeson (Irishman), Bill Heck (Billy Knapp), Grainger Hines (Mr. Arthur), Zoe Kazan (Alice Longabaugh), Harry Melling (Harrison the Artist), Liam Neeson (Impresario), Tim Blake Nelson (Buster Scruggs), Jonjo O'Neill (Thigpen the Englishman), Chelcie Ross (Trapper), Saul Rubinek (Frenchman), Tom Waits (Prospector), Clancy Brown (Curly Joe), Jefferson Mays (Gilbert Longabaugh), Stephen Root (Teller), Willie Watson (The Kid), Ralph Ineson (Posse Leader), David Krumholtz (Frenchman), Sam Dillon (Young Man)


It was easy to classify Netflix Originals as something other than cinema when the class consisted primarily of comedies made by Adam Sandler and his friends. But now that Netflix courts and finances top-tier filmmakers,
the film world has to take them seriously, even if we assume the productions are only commercially benefitting the company and not substantially through their modest, publically undocumented day-and-date theatrical releases.

Netflix can be fairly accused of blurring the line between television and cinema. For proof of that, look no further than The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Though conceived and produced as a limited series for Annapurna Television, this anthology has ended up being the eighteenth feature film both written and directed by revered eccentric storytellers Joel and Ethan Coen.

Returning the brothers to the genre of their biggest hit (2010's blockbuster remake True Grit) and, debatably, their most decorated work (2007's Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men), Ballad consists of six very different segments all set in the Old West during the 19th century.

Tim Blake Nelson reunites with the Coen Brothers to play the titular gunslinger/troubadour of "The Ballad of Buster scruggs."

First, the titular opening chapter stars Tim Blake Nelson as a well-mannered, well-spoken troubadour who surprises other outlaws with his sharpshooting and deadly self-defense. Next up is Near Algodones, featuring James Franco as a bank robber whose swift death sentence gets interrupted by a Comanche attack. Meal Ticket, the darkest of this often dark collection, centers on a limbless young man (Harry Melling, best known as Harry Potter's Dudley Dursley) who performs a one-man show of Bible stories and history and such and the impresario (Liam Neeson) who produces the show.

All Gold Canyon, possibly the high point and unquestionably the most cinematic chapter, stars Tom Waits as an old, spirited prospector looking for gold on his own. The Gal Who Got Rattled, sends Alice Longabaugh (Zoe Kazan), her failure of a brother (Jefferson Mays), and her brother's yappy little dog President Pierce on a trail to Oregon where nothing proceeds as planned. Finally, The Mortal Remains finds three very different strangers -- a "tedious" rambling fur trapper (Chelcie Ross), a devoutly Christian married lady (Tyne Daly), and a jolly Frenchman (Saul Rubinek) -- sharing a stagecoach ride to a motel with two rather different bounty hunters (Brendan Gleeson and Jonjo O'Neill).

Beyond their setting, the segments that make up Buster Scruggs do not have all that much in common apart from an awareness of mortality. Yet each is a showcase for the ample writing and directing gifts the Coen brothers have been known and celebrated for since the 1980s. The film is noteworthy for condensing the siblings' instincts to stories of thirty minutes or less. Outside of their contributions to Paris, je t'aime and the Cannes Film Festival's 60th anniversary anthology To Each His Own Cinema, we haven't seen what the brothers can do with the challenges and opportunities afforded by short runtimes.

Tom Waits plays a rambling old prospector in "All Gold Canyon", the most lyrical segment of the Coen Brothers' Western anthology "The Balld of Buster Scruggs."

Here, they prove their talents are not limited to feature length. Repeatedly, these segments subvert expectations and fill us with a myriad of emotions. They're often darkly humorous and sometimes decidedly somber.
They're also immersive, original, and distinct, touching upon classic Coen brothers themes without feeling like retread ground. Each chapter boasts fully-realized, well-developed characters you'd love to spend more time with, whether they're played by actors they've worked with before (like Nelson and Stephen Root), younger actors you wouldn't think were on their radars (Franco, Kazan, and Melling), or actors who aren't on anyone's radars (Bill Heck and Grainger Hines in Rattled). The performances here are consistently arresting and rewarding.

Though it may have been filmed as their television debut, the Coen brothers have not scaled back their signature cinematic flair. Complementing their sharp writing and editing is some exquisite cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel, the Amelie cinematographer they worked with on Inside Llewyn Davis and their Paris je t'aime short. While this is likely too esoteric to overcome the inherent limitations placed on anthology films for any real awards consideration, Delbonnel's stirring compositions ought to at least garner serious thought.

After premiering at the Venice Film Festival (where it won Best Screenplay) and then playing at the New York Film Festival, Buster Scruggs hits both select theaters and Netflix menus worldwide today, on the Friday before Thanksgiving.

Related Reviews:
Written and Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen:
True Grit No Country for Old Men Inside Llewyn Davis A Serious Man Hail, Caesar! Fargo Blood Simple. The Big Lebowski

James Franco: The Disaster Artist 127 Hours | Tim Blake Nelson: As I Lay Dying Child of God | Zoe Kazan: Ruby Sparks The Big Sick
Tom Waits: Coffee and Cigarettes Down by Law Seven Psychopaths | Liam Neeson: A Walk Among the Tombstones
Now in Theaters: The Old Man & the Gun The Sisters Brothers Suburbicon 22 July
Anthology Films: New York Stories Movie 43

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Reviewed November 8, 2018 / Updated November 16, 2018.

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