Having run a marginally successful movie blog in the past (a razor-thin margin, but still), I learned a few things when it comes to crafting things people will actually read on the internet. One of the things I learned? Reviews, for the most part, are not typically something people click on. Yeah, sometimes a fiery enough subhead might get people’s attention for a moment (this one certainly did the trick for me!), but it is usually a rare thing. A run-of-the-mill, standard film review will only gain traction if it’s A) one of the first reviews to be released for the pop culture in question (hard to do when everyone in the bigger markets gets to see things days if not weeks in advanced) or B) it’s from a notable critic with a major following. I am not that, so I (and hundreds like me) have to turn to another avenue to get eyeballs on these things: the tried-and-true listicle! Does a project of such magnificence and craft like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs deserve to be broken down into its base parts and dissected into a silly, arbitrary “rank” system? No, probably not. Will you and many others probably find yourself reading a list like that, solely in the pursuit of getting angry at the rankings I provide? I dunno, you’re still here, so you tell me.
Here’s the six segments of The Coen Brother’s grand Western anthology (formerly believed to be a television series, until it turned out it wasn’t), ranked for your instant disapproval. The assumption here is that you are reading this AFTER watching the film so, be warned, from here on out, we are in FULL SPOILER TOWN FOR EVERY SEGMENT IN The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Anyways, enjoy…?
6. “Near Algodones”
This is by far the worst segment in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which is to say it’s really good, just not great. It has a lot of things going for it though, namely in the technical category — there are some stunning shots from cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel here, and the production design of the sparse prairie is stunning, even watching it at home. I also have to fully admit to guffawing at the second-to-last line, which is a prime example of gallows humor at its finest.
But, unfortunately, where this segment falls flat is in its simplicity — it felt like the entire thing was just leading up to that one dark joke and that, ultimately, there just wasn’t a lot more for this segment to do or say. It’s just fifteen minutes of a cowboy getting caught, lucking out of his execution…then two minutes later randomly getting caught again, and getting executed for real this time. Yes, there’s definitely humor to be had in that set up and, once again, I did laugh at the misfortune of it all. But I can’t help but feel like this one was too abbreviated for its on good, and that the irony of its conclusion couldn’t have been better felt if it didn’t arrive so suddenly after what had just happened. If the segment had a little bit more room to breath after James Franco’s cowboy was initially rescued by the secret rustler, the tragedy of what had happened would have hit me a whole lot harder. Also, the last line is a bit nonsensical and unnecessary, while also somewhat deflating the fantastic “First time, huh?” gag before it.
But, hey: this segment does have a crazed Stephen Root wearing armor entirely comprised of kitchen cookware, screaming out “PANSHOT!” as he bum rushes a perplexed James Franco. So clearly anything with a scene like that can’t truly be bad, right?
5. “Meal Ticket”
My god, Meal Ticket is so fucked up, and I love it. It’s one of the slowest segments in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, sure (second only to the my next pick, really), but it’s all worth it for that absolutely haunting conclusion. How the Coen’s so subtly set up what’s about to go down (pretty much wordlessly — the Impresario and the artist never really talk to each other, at least directly) is masterful, and well there’s an angle of dark comedy to the whole proceedings, it’s mostly just a sad and depressing rumination on how artist’s get used and discarded, and that no one will really care about what happens to them once they’ve outstayed their value. It’s basically a little Western-set short version of Inside Llewyn Davis, and since that one is an all-timer amongst the Coen’s oeuvre (for me at least), I was prone to love it. Which I pretty much did.
So why is it my second to last pick for this list? Because I also loved the rest of the segments. Maybe even a smidge more. Or maybe even a smidge less. Who cares, the ranking is unimportant, the fundamental foundation of this very article is a lie, here simply to trap you into my ramblings about my two favorite filmmakers and their new, glorious film.
Let’s press on, shall we?
4. “All Gold Canyon”
“All Gold Canyon” and “Meal Ticket” were basically fighting neck-and-neck for these two spots, and I had a hard time at first deciding which one would outrank the other. But then I realized “Oh, ranking art is pretty much a bankrupt institution, there are no real rules to any of this, and nothing at all about how I decide to organize these segments really, effectively matters.” So that realization certainly moved things along, a bit.
Anyways, “All Gold Canyon”: I love the shit out of this thing. If “Meal Ticket” was the Coen’s playing in their Inside Llewyn Davis mindset, than “All Gold Canyon” is the brother’s back in the saddle of their No Country for Old Men/Blood Simple style. Sparse, procedural, nearly dialogue empty. Just watching one man do his job for like 20 minutes, only breaking away to tell an actual story in its final moments. And well the segment could have easily ended with the bandit killing the old man, rendering everything we saw absolutely pointless (in a cynical, darkly funny matter that is no stranger to the Coens), I love how it chooses to take the more “optimistic” approach, with the old man getting the upper hand, and getting to keep the entirety of Mr. Pocket. Character actor/musician Tom Waits absolutely makes the most of his old prospector character, creating a character you actually root for, in the face of the harshness that comes with life in the West. To give that guy a happy ending is a rare act of mercy for the Coen Brothers, but it left me absolutely beaming as the story concluded. The prospector got the gold he worked so damn hard for, and got to ride off on his little donkey, singing into the sunset. Good for him, I say.
If I have one complaint about “All Gold Canyon” and, hell, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs overall, it’s that it leans a little bit too heavy on the CGI. Frankly, I was surprised how much of that was in this movie, considering the Coen’s usual aversion to it, but there was a good amount here that was, well…rough. I mean, for the love of god Hollywood: STOP PUTTING CGI DEER IN EVERYTHING. It almost never works, and it takes me out of movies completely when they pop up. I’m sure deer, the little bastards they are, probably suck to get correctly in a film, so it’s far easier to either create it with CGI, or pop the dear into place with god awful green screen afterwards (looking at you, Deer from Three Billboards). Either way…please. Stop doing it. Now.
Anyways, onto #3, the titular…
3. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”
This segment is just god-damn delightful and, really, there’s nothing more to it than that. Tim Blake Nelson is pitch perfect as the fourth wall breaking, surprisingly violent Buster Scruggs, and well there’s little more to this short than watching his antics as he tears apart a small Western town…really, what more could you want? It’s like Deadpool, but with a singing cowboy. And Tim Blake Nelson. What more do you need in life, really? And the fact that it climaxes with an angel version of Buster Scruggs playing a harp as he duets with the man who just gunned him down in battle (a surprisingly beautiful rendition of “When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings”) is just absurdist icing on the cake.
The fact that the Coen’s decided to open the film with this segment was honestly a ballsy move, as its cartoonish, irreverent tone comes in stark contrast to pretty much every other segment. I could definitely see a subset of people being absolutely turned off by the entire thing, just based on the wackiness of “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.” But I certainly wasn’t! As a huge fan of the Coen’s comedic sensibility (The Big Lebowski is probably my favorite comedy of all time), it was just the right note to remind me “Hey, you’re about to watch a Coen Brothers film — bask in it, buddy.” And boy did I.
2. “The Mortal Remains”
As I said on Twitter shortly after seeing the film, what I loved about The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is how much it captures everything that makes the Coen Brothers the Coen Brothers. How it manages to take their entire filmography, and shorten it down to a half-dozen segments that perfectly illustrate the kind of movies the pair make. That’s not a simple task, either: these are the guys who made Intolerable Cruelty AND No Country for Old Men. Back to back, even! They strike a wide gamut of genres, that’s for damn sure. But if “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” was there comedy piece, and “Meal Ticket” was their tragedy, and “All Gold Canyon” there slow-paced thriller, than “The Mortal Remains” is their strange, disconcerting drama. Think Barton Fink, or A Serious Man. The kinds of films that are kind of funny, but also strange, and dark, and even slightly mythical in a unique, Coen Brothers way. It’s not a tone they don’t very often strike (once in like every decade or so, it seems), but it certainly makes an impact.
But what makes “The Mortal Remains” so fantastic is the way that it slowly conveys just what’s happening, keeping its cards close to the chest until almost the very end of the segment (and, in effect, the movie itself.) Watching these characters go on long Coen Brothers speeches about the nature of humanity is in and of itself is a delight to watch, and I was enraptured the whole way through. But when things turn to the (vaguely) supernatural, the entire thing becomes even more delicious. “The Mortal Remains” goes from an expertly crafted piece of character interaction into this weird, ethereal thing that doesn’t take a lot of energy to explain itself…and never, ever even needs to. It’s kind of like a Ray Bradbury short story I would have read in middle school, mixed with the insanely well crafted dialogue that the Coen’s bring to every single one of their projects. The kind that’s so fucking good, it gives me an inferiority complex just listening to it. But, you know…in a good way.
1. “The Gal Who Got Rattled”
“The Gal Who Got Rattled” is, unequivocally, the best segment in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. I know it, you know it, everyone knows it. Even the Coen’s themselves seem to know it, as its by far the segment that takes up the most time in the entire film (based purely on my gut feeling and not, you know, actual research or journalistic work.) But every moment spent in “The Gal Who Got Rattled” is time well spent, as the segment perfectly lays out a nice little slice of Western romance and, because it’s the Coen Brothers, absolute heartbreak.
Admittedly I’m a sucker for a well-told romance, especially one with as much heart as this one. It’s also a bit of a sneaky romance, as what “The Gal Who Got Rattled” is actually going for isn’t really revealed into a large way into the segment. But it goes to show how good the Coen’s are at just painting an atmosphere that I was just totally okay watching the exploits of this traveling caravan along the Oregon Trail, and the journey of main character Alice Longabaugh. She really is what anchors the segment, with Zoe Kazan doing a fantastic job of painting this quiet, introverted woman alone on her own for the first time in her life. Equally compelling is her screen partner, Billy Knapp, played with gusto by Bill Heck (who I’ve never really seen as a lead in anything, but makes a hell of an impression here.) They make a fantastic pairing, their awkward chemistry thankfully ending up on the more charming than annoying side of the spectrum. The Coen’s usually don’t do straight romance (well, unless you really want to count Intolerable Cruelty), but they pulled it off with warmth and serenity here. Only a few quick scenes between the pair, and I was instantly routing for the two love birds.
…So of course it all has to end so damn tragically, in a way that is so simple in its irony, but a punch in the gut all the same. The sequence that leads to Alice’s suicide is a Coen’s all-timer, though, a perfectly paced bit of action that recalls The Hurt Locker more than anything else (and, like “All Gold Canyon,” shows off how good the duo are at presenting the performance of procedural activity.) Although, on that note, since I expanded the whole “every segment has a Coen Brothers movie parallel” thing, I’m now obligated to stick to it, so this one is most like…True Grit, probably? Has the same forlorn, mournful tone. And both feature a female protagonist, a surprisingly rare thing for a Coen Brothers film. Either way, this segment is going to stick with me for a long time. Damn you Coens, for making me feel something. I hate that!
But I don’t hate The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, that’s for sure. In fact, when added together, I loved the hell out of this anthology. Which is great, since I was not too hot on the Coen’s last one, also an anthology of sorts (in a way that, IMHO, did not serve Hail Caesar! nearly as well.) But I shouldn’t have doubted my favorite filmmakers. Because, believe it or not, they know how to make good movies. Or, in this case — how to make six of them.
Also published on Medium.