Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

This film is another in a long line of iterative experiments that the Coen Brothers have made to explore the intersections of comedy and misanthropy. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs dances effortlessly into and out of the comedy mode, but maintains as mean an edge as any of their other work. Viewers caught unawares, expecting another True Grit, may be alienated by the tone or by how dark the Coens are willing to go.

Scruggs pulls double duty as not only the latest Coen Brothers film, but the first one they’ve done with Netflix. This is important for two reasons: first, it reads as an endorsement of streaming as a viable channel for new, mid-budget films and second,  it reinforces Netflix’s recent change in strategy to focusing more on quality than quantity. Critics of Netflix’s business model or quality of output may have to reconsider when prestigious filmmakers like the Coens work with them (Scorsese has a film on the way with Netflix as well). It seems that this may be what the company is counting on. Others might chalk it up to the changes in the industry, reflecting a sense that middle-budget movies that are either geared at adults or described as “arty” or “weird” don’t get made that much anymore. If Netflix is willing to make them, maybe they can prove that there is an audience out there for films like this.

Structured as a six-part anthology, an unpopular film structure these days, the segments seem to have little to do with each other outside of a broader satirical presentation of Western tropes and motifs. Everything is here: shoot-outs, sing-alongs, wagon trains, robberies, frontier justice, “Indian” raids, and even a traveling wagon offering curious entertainment. At first these elements seem affectionate if satirical, but each becomes darker and more reflective of the ways audiences have historically failed to examine their appetites in the context of the genre. Though this film can be read as a critique of the Western genre, it never goes after the obvious and well-tread targets like slavery or genocide. Instead, the Coens’ focus is on the subtle and unexplored.

Often considered bleak or nihilistic in what most of their films say about human nature, the Coens are playful, but never without a punchline. Their typical approach is to present the story bluntly, leaving it to the audience to parse the deeper intent and meaning. Common themes include moral corruption and the hilarity of human pretensions to moral righteousness. These are present in Scruggs, couched in the peculiar juxtaposition of the historical period and cinematic culture captured by the Western genre.

Themes range from the gleeful celebration of violence to ableist exploitation. The segments are presented as a straightforward story, with a storybook framing device, and can easily be interpreted that way, though doing so might lead to frustration about the purpose and meaning of these stories. Without some decoding, they may seem random or whimsical rather than compelling. One must pay close attention to what they’re seeing since nothing here is wasted. The Coens have never been didactic filmmakers, though some of the segments are more on the nose than others.

For example, the visual palette ranges from gorgeous location photography (All Gold Canyon) to distracting digital shots (Near Algodones) in what seems to be an intentionally uneven approach to using the visuals to underline the storytelling. One of the themes of All Gold Canyon, which is one of the less subtle segments, is the rejection of an unspoiled wilderness in favor of greed. It makes complete sense for that to be reinforced by the cinematography, suggesting that convenience or expense had little to do with why Scruggs occasionally looks kind of cheap.

As the film goes on, the segments become longer and more complex. When watching The Gal Who Got Rattled, earlier ones like Meal Ticket seem more like experimental shorts than sections of a larger thesis.This is partly because while visuals and comedy are big guns in the Coens’ arsenal, they also write some of the best and most cerebral dialogue out there. Viewers will have to wait to get a taste of that, with some fairly meaty philosophical back and forth occurring toward the back end of the film. Until then, there’s still plenty to enjoy. With a murderer’s row of great actors, far too many to list here, the Coens bring just about every trick and technique they have into the mix at one point in this film or another.

While probably not for everybody, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a more accessible film than Hail, Caesar or A Serious Man. For those willing and able to laugh at its gallows humor and bleak disposition toward the human animal, it offers not only fun but some meatier thematic elements to chew on. Even the most attentive viewers may find themselves puzzling over the precise relationships in Meal Ticket or the metaphysical maybes of The Mortal Remains.