It’s not like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was ever likely to really disappoint me. The Coen Brothers are my favorite living directors, and even their weakest efforts (The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty) still have their pleasures. But even so, I can’t deny that I was a little worried about Buster Scruggs, just because of the bizarre origin story behind it – that it was originally a TV series, before the Coens decided to turn it into an anthology film. That’s an odd choice (though in keeping for the notoriously controlling brothers, who reportedly made the choice at least partially out of a desire to make sure people watched the segments in order), and could easily lead to a disjointed, jumbled affair.
But it did not, and instead, what you get is one of the most entertaining Coen brothers’ films in recent memory, one that allows them to demonstrate every side of their multifaceted talent: verbal comedy, sublime silliness, existential dread, philosophical musings, quiet human drama, silent storytelling, and more, all done to perfection.
You want comedy? Buster Scruggs delivers out of the gate with the title short, which follows Scruggs, a traveling musician played by Tim Blake Nelson, as he narrates his life to the audience and explains why he doesn’t particularly like the sobriquet that’s been hung upon him. It’s a perfect example of the Coens’ gift for hyper-verbal comedy, as Nelson’s gleefully verbose monologue contrasts with the increasingly violent actions on display. And it’s nicely followed by “Near Algodones,” the anthology’s slightest short, but one that still finds a great pair of performances by James Franco and Stephen Root as a bank robber and a chatty teller, respectively, which gives you a sense of the brothers’ affection for clueless criminal schemes gone wrong.
But just when you think Buster Scruggs is going to be nothing but silly larks, the series shifts wildly with “Meal Ticket,” a haunting, dark tale of a traveling huckster (Liam Neeson) whose main attraction is a quadruple amputee (Harry Melling, of Harry Potter fame) who recites famous oratories from plays and history. Apart from those recitations, “Meal Ticket” features a bare minimum of dialogue, telling its story through body language, framing of images, and astonishing performances. It’s a simple enough story, following these two men as they attempt to perform their way across the West (and there’s a sense where you can feel like it’s got some autobiographical elements, especially with the advent of streaming services that encroach on the old ways of performing), but it’s the film’s most haunting story, one that reminds you that the Coens’ gift for dialogue isn’t their only strength; indeed, “Meal Ticket” would only be harmed with extra dialogue, instead of the way that the story’s mood is allowed to linger and seep in, whether it’s in the awe of a great performance or the isolation of the woods.
Then comes “All Gold Canyon,” which takes the lack of dialogue in an entirely different direction, essentially giving us a one-man show performed by Tom Waits as a scruffy, disheveled gold prospector in an isolated wilderness. (In other words, Tom Waits could easily be playing himself, for all I know.) Waits carries the majority of the short on his own shoulders, talking to himself, the wilderness, the unseen gold, animals, and anything else that hews into his field of vision, but in such a cheerful, ridiculous way that you can’t help but adore the man, even as the Coens clearly underline the way that humanity disrupted the pristine wilderness as they came across the country. Waits is basically just narrating his life and talking to fill the space, but it all allows the Coens to tell their story without ever having characters spend the time explaining themselves or their motivations, and as ever, they never spell out the morals – that’s not their way.
Verbal comedy, black humor, bleakness, and then isolated wilderness…so of course Buster Scruggs next tosses out a beautifully understated, simple story of a man and woman attracted to each other in a time and place that doesn’t have much patience or use for these emotions. “The Girl Who Got Rattled” follows a wagon train across the West, focusing on a young woman (Zoe Kazan) left alone after the death of her brother and her conversations with one of the wagon masters (Bill Hicks). It’s a quiet story, one that’s less about the west than the others, and more about these two characters and the way they start to respond to the other ones, and reminds you that the charges of misanthropy so often leveled against the Coens couldn’t be more false – these are students of human nature, and their portrait of a simple, shy courtship is a beautiful one that sneaks up on you as it goes.
And then it all comes to an end with “The Mortal Remains,” the tale of five passengers on a stagecoach heading to an unknown destination – in other words, an enclosed setting that allows the brothers to return back to their gift for dialogue as characters debate love, death, existence, morality, and more. “The Mortal Remains”, more than any of the other shorts, taps into the sense of religious and existential dread that fills movies like A Serious Man, as the Coens deal with the question of whether human beings can connect to each other or ever truly communicate, but more than that, with the nature of death and what it says about our own existence. It’s undeniably a parable, much like A Serious Man, but one with that inimitable sense of wry, dark humor that the Coens do so well.
In other words, what The Ballad of Buster Scruggs gives you is a history of the Coen brothers in a nutshell. It’s funny, it’s violent, it’s dark, it’s silly, it’s profound, it’s thoughtful, it’s melancholy, it’s wry, it’s beautiful, and it’s ugly. It’s incredibly shot, it’s perfectly written, and it’s impeccably performed. It’s everything you could want in a Coen brothers movie and then some. What else could you possibly need?