The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Authentically Western-feeling with an innovative novella chapter structure, bright playful comedic commentary characteristic of the Coen brothers & strong leads & screenwriting, although better in-concept than in its (scattered) execution. 7.5/10.

Plot Synopsis: An anthology of six short films that take place in 19th-century post-Civil War era during the settling of the Old West. Tales of life and violence by the Coen brothers following a singing gunslinger, a bank robber, a traveling impresario, an elderly prospector, a wagon train, and a perverse pair of bounty hunters are explored.

*Possible spoilers ahead*

Review: A cheerful, mellifluously-voiced cowboy dots the Old West desert landscape sauntering towards an isolated cantina of burly outlaws, trusty pistol in hand. A gold-toothed, lascivious bank robber tries to take out a secluded exchequer, only to find out there’s more than meets the eye with this attendant. A shifty entertainer tries to play the heart-strings of audiences only to snatch away their recompense, an old man searches the wilderness for gold, a spooky night wagon gallops towards destination unknown: The Coen brothers’ newest cinematic event certainly lacks no inventive screenwriting/prose.

They’re back with their unmistakable, signature visual storytelling style accompanied by consistently tight and taught writing, ballsy/unapologetic envelope-pushing, and homage to the lost ages of filmmaking tin a new peregrination into the streaming world of Netflix. Authentically Western-feeling with an innovative novella chapter/anthology structure, bright playful dark humour/black comedic commentary characteristic of the Coen brothers’ work, & strong leads & screenwriting, (although perhaps nicer in concept than (scattered) execution), The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an extremely charming collection of Western tales.

The hallmarks of Coen-brand filmmaking are there: the visuals are absolutely jaw-dropping with downright impressive cinematography and shots (meadow and night-watch chapters are absolutely mesmerizing visually), richly-defined characters cheeky and chock-full of personality backed by fine performances by its star-studded leads from Tim Blake Nelson to James Franco to Liam Neeson, nostalgia pure and real feeling authentically old-school Western straight out of a time capsule, and screenplay taut and crisply written exploring a diverse array of themes from genre deconstruction and black comedy (brilliant in opening) to guilt, the entertainment industry, and the fragility/beauty of nature untouched all in a roundhouse 2hr13 min journey. It is a truly splendiferous array of talent showcasing that they are some of the best directors in modern filmmaking, a shame because the cards they’re dealt by way of the surrounding framework is (faultily) constructed.

Netflix constricts these potentially brilliant chapter ideas rife with complex symbolism and character work far more high-brow than your average binge-series into a claustrophobic format. I maintain what I’ve always said with solo-anthology films: they don’t work. That law of physics translates here: the stories are tremendously rushed and don’t play well being thrust from one to another with seemingly no tie-throughs or transitional fluidity, don’t get the breathing room and development/deliberation they warranted and that would’ve skyrocketed them into another stratosphere of film art, and name is misleading only having a few minutes of Buster – who was so good, it’s a head-scratching shame he didn’t get more screentime. Instead of spreading the film thin with a scattered structure that starts to wear thin as you go, they should have sat down and negotiated a feature 10-12 episode series length that would have rocked the cinematic world if done right.

Overall, the Coen brothers’ new project is still strong filmmaking miles ahead of most of its competition don’t get me wrong, but one can only wonder how much better it would’ve been if all the stunning visual work, shots, screenplay, performances, and je-ne-sais-quoi quality of their bright playful indie-feeling style had gotten the series and fleshing out it really needed, and deserved. Authentically Western-feeling with an innovative novella chapter structure, bright playful comedic commentary characteristic of the Coen brothers. & strong leads & screenwriting, although nicer in concept than (scattered) executional structure.

Official CLC Score: 7.5/10