Review – ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’

The Coen Brothers deliver a fantastic Western anthology that deserves to be watched!

Review by J.T. Johnson

DIRECTORS: Joel and Ethan Coen
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Bruno Delbonnel
WRITERS: Joel and Ethan Coen
MUSIC: Carter Burwell

I’m more than a little late with the review for “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” because, to be honest, I usually don’t think about the films being released on Netflix. After watching the latest film from the Coen Bros, though, I’ll finally start keeping a lookout for future original films on the streaming service. The movie is actually an anthology Western, consisting of six stories written by the brothers.

The main title of the overall film is actually the first and one of the shortest segments in the movie, but no less impressive. Tim Blake Nelson plays the titular character and shows us that this is yet another film with Joel and Ethan’s original writing and wonderful ear for dialogue. The next five stories also follow suit and there is not really a weak entry in this movie.

This is the first film by the brothers to be shot digitally yet the film has that familiar look that you’ve seen in their past films. With the help of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, there are sweeping shots of deserts and wilderness along with stark winter settings. The beautiful scenery doesn’t get any better than in the story ‘All Gold Canyon’, which is about an old prospector played magnificently by Tom Waits.

If I had to say that there was one consistent theme through each story, it would be “death” itself. In one story, it may be about not always being the best when someone younger comes along. In another story, it could be an allegory about the shrewd world of show business, showing you that while you may have something unique, if your audience stops paying attention, then you might be shoved to the side for the next big thing. The final part could be interpreted as taking that final journey from this world to the next and wondering if the passengers will realize their fates before their ride is over.

I’ve already mentioned Nelson and Waits who give great performances in their pieces, but the performances in all the stories are spot on. James Franco gives a solid and mostly silent performance in his story while Liam Neeson and Harry Melling are fantastic in ‘Meal Ticket’. For me, though, the best performance comes from Jonjo O’Neill and Brendon Gleeson as Thigpen and Clarence in “The Mortal Remains”.

As with most Coen Brothers films, there’s a lot to peel away with this movie and there are many interpretations that can be taken away when you’re finished watching it. Viewing a Coen Brothers film is like watching a stage play that keeps you hooked from the moment the first character shows up. If you are a fan of Westerns, the Coen Brothers or both, then you need to check out “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”. On top of that, it is definitely one of the best films of 2018.

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