Making Music of the Motley

Directed by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Brendan Gleeson

The Coen brothers have shown time and time again that they are masters of Americana in film, tackling several different genres to typically great results. When rumors came that they had collaborated with Netflix to craft a Western miniseries, I was immediately sold. Unfortunately, this was basically fake news, as The Ballad of Buster Scruggs turns out to be an anthology film comprised of six different short stories revolving around completely different wild west adventures. While this did not end up a six episode miniseries, the actual film is pretty good, but there are some shortcomings with the format, and it does suffer from the same kinds of tropes that ail other anthologized short films.

The film itself is around two hours and fifteen minutes long, but not every tale has equal time. Some stories range around thirty minutes, others around fifteen or twenty. As is the nature of anthology films like this, some stories are stronger than others. I feel that the stories involving the titular Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) and the gold prospector (Tom Waits, pictured above) held the most thematic substance, with the former being the best comedic short and the latter being the best dramatic one. Each story does feel finite and conclusive, and the Coens do a good job of making sure that most of the stories don’t overstay their welcome, though I did find the Liam Neeson and Zoe Kazan stories did drag on for far too long. Overall, from a narrative perspective, I still think True Grit (2010) and No Country For Old Men are their strongest westerns, but the experiment in story structure here does at least feel fresh and never too hamfisted. It’s merely a shame that each story is so short, there are not many major instances of character development to be had, and the stories with characters that get developed the most end rather anticlimactically.

All of the actors on display do a pretty serviceable job depicting their characters, but I do believe particular praise needs to be given to Tom Waits’ performance in particular. His acting makes his story one of the most emotionally investing in the film, and it helps to carry what could have been the worst story to being one of the best. The cinematography is stellar as usual from D.P. Bruno Delbonnel, who collaborated with the Coens for one of their best films of recent years, Inside Llewyn Davis. I could not think of any complaints with the shot composition, as every one of the stories were beautifully shot. Lastly, the score is expertly composed, fitting the tone of each scene, whether it be comedic, sinister, or melancholy. The technical merits of this film are not at all wasted, and the Coens benefit from Netflix’s signature habit of throwing money at things. It’s good to see them throw money at established auteurs to provide them what they need.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is not the best Netflix original film, nor is it the best Coen brothers movie, but it is a fun time that provides a lot more laughs and heart than many other soulless attempts at vignettes that have been released onto the streaming service. I don’t think it’ll be one of their most memorable works in their filmography, but it does provide some good standout performances and some lush visuals that help make this worth a watch. I’d recommend it for fans of the brotherly directing pair, and it’s on streaming, so there’s not too much to lose here overall. It’s yet another valid and soulful work of Americana that serves as a reminder that the Coens’ voice remain relevant.

Verdict: Stream It

Disclaimer: I review movies based on a 5-tier scale: See in Theaters-Full Price, See in Theaters-Matinee, Rental, Wait for Streaming, and Skip It. If a film is released straight to VOD or streaming, the rating will simply change to either Stream It or Skip It. If you disagree with this review, I encourage you to watch the film and as always, make up your own mind about it. Am I wrong? Am I spot on? Let me know in the comments below!

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