The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
The problem with Netflix movies is that there is barely any build-up to their release. If you blink, you might miss the fact that they’ve released the latest Paul Greengrass and Orson Welles movies (the last one completed and edited posthumously for the late director). The streaming platform can’t put trailers in theaters (since they are shut out), and they don’t put any advertisements of their own content on their site either (something for example HBO does well). Thus we are suddenly dropped with the latest Coen Brother’s film out of nowhere.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a compilation of six short stories all set in the American west. These range from a prospector’s (John Lithgow) struggle to find gold in a river, to the travails of a bank robber (James Franco), and the survival of a caravan.
The stories vary greatly in quality; there are two particular strong ones. One stars Liam Neeson and Harry Melling as a pair that travel around with the latter performing. The catch is that Melling plays a man with no limbs, and thus is set on a stage and performs monologues for a raptured audience. Throughout most of the story no actual words are directed between characters, we mostly hear speeches being recited, like Shelly’s Ozymandias, some of Shakespeare’s sonnets, or the Gettysburg address. The second strong story is the one involving a traveling caravan, in it Zoe Kazan plays a woman traveling with her brother, who due to cholera. Kazan’s character is forced to ward for herself with the help of a willing cowboy played by Bill Heck. The rest of the stories vary in length, and while some might entertain, others are downright dull.
The film makes use of a book, kind of how the old Disney movies would being and end; before each story a page is turned and we’re shown a picture with a caption, this picture will end up being central to the story. One wonders if the Coens devised each story by doing the writing exercise that involves looking at a picture and deriving a story from it. It’s an entertaining creative practice, but it never stops feeling like that: the Coens playing around and rehearsing a bigger script.
The classic Coen’s dark humor makes its appearance in a few stories, and those tend to be the least enjoyable. In the end, the film is enjoyable for some parts, but coming from this talented pair of filmmakers, we simply expected more.