Film Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

John Ford, Sergio Leone, John Huston, even Republic Pictures’ Herbert J. Yates ride again—albeit, in a quirky Coen Brothers kind of way.
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The starry credits for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs crawl dirge-like across the screen to a particularly mournful, but mood-setting, instrumental of “Streets of Laredo” and then—thanks to the uncharted creativity of the inestimable Carter Burwell—zip schizophrenically into the Sons of the Pioneers perennial “Cool Clear Water,” sung here by only one son-o’-a-gun as he moseys across the majestic Monument Valley.

This would be our title character—a white-suited, guitar-strumming, gun-slinging singing cowboy of the Gene Autry/Roy Rogers school. He is played by Tim Blake Nelson, who looks about as western as Bob Dylan did in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid but is an authentic Oklahoman and a perpetual hire for Joel and Ethan Coen. They wrote, directed and produced this oater opus for Netflix streaming but opted, on the spur of the moment, to whittle its six episodes down to one anthology movie for theatres.

Five segments run around 20 minutes, and one goes into overtime. (At 132 minutes, it’s the Coens’ longest picture.) The conceit is that all these come from a collection of tall tales called The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Other Tales; the truth is all but one comes from the Coen memory bank, and it’s a Jack London yarn, “All Gold Canyon,” about an innovative old prospector and an ornery claim-jumper of the old mode.

This gold-panning/greed-planning sequence is the Treasure of the Sierra Madre stop on the Coens’ epic trek West. Tom Waits resembles Nick Nolte on a toot, all gravel-voiced and wild-haired as the prospecting old geezer, while his adversary, Sam Dillon, is a ringer for Waits himself.

The most striking physical facsimile in the film is struck by James Franco in the second segment, “Near Algodones,” his eyes shooting out from the shadows of a large, flat black hat just like the menacing Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West. He plays a bank robber luckless enough to tangle with a fiercely resistant teller (Stephen Root) who charges him in a shootout wearing pots-and-pans armory. It takes some circuitous plotting to get him to his own Ox-Bow Incident “necktie party.”

That sketch and Buster’s “Ballad”are as close to a live-action cartoon as the movie comes. Miscasting Nelson as Buster accentuates the merriment when he swaggers into a bar full of whiskey-swigging galoots who won’t share. Underneath his down-home demeanor and his good-guy garb, he has a short fuse and a fast trigger-finger and dispatches the lot of them in a flashy display of gun-fireworks. Of course, he soon learns what Gregory Peck did in The Gunfighter and Glenn Ford did in The Fastest Gun Alive—that there’s always someone out there ready to build on a top gun’s rep.

Most of these stories illustrate the quickest way to get a bullet in the forehead, but that’s not true of “Meal Ticket,” the third and most chilling episode, which takes the picture onto darker, more somber turf. It was probably inspired by a memorable bit Alan Mowbray pulled off in My Darling Clementine—a besotted British actor forced to perform some saloon Shakespeare. The Coens translate that into a limbless young Brit who sits like a stump on a barstool reciting the glories of Shelley and the Gettysburg Address. He’s poignantly played by Harry Melling, whose five previous big-screen appearances have been as Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter series. An almost unrecognizable (except for the voice) Liam Neeson essays his tour manager.

“The Gal Who Got Rattled”is Zoe Kazan, continuing this solidly established tragic tone as an Easterner (wo)manning her own covered wagon across the Indian-infested Oregon Trail, a la Westward the Women. En route, she gets fleeting support from a sickly brother (Jefferson Mays), romance from a trail-drive hunk (Bill Heck) and too-much-to-absorb survival tips from the Ward Bond figure in charge (Grainger Hines).

These last two storylines are the most affecting and haunting, and the movie winds down into a quiet sort of coda with a Stagecoach homage slugged “The Mortal Remains.” It’s an acutely contentious and claustrophobic ride for the distinctively colored passengers onboard: a chatterbox trapper saying little at length (Chelcie Ross), a Frenchman enduring the company he’s forced to keep (the long-time, no-see Saul Rubinek), a high-collared, easily offended old dowager (Tyne Daly) and the best Coen-kink of all—a couple of gay bounty hunters (Brendan Gleeson and Jonjo O’Neill) whose collected cadaver is stashed with the luggage on the top of the coach.

And there you have it—six faces West, each with a unique perspective all its own—but none of them without fatalities that, more than less, go with this territory.

Not only do the Coens remember and reproduce it well, so does their French cinematographer, Bruno Delbonnel, who earned his fourth Oscar nomination for double-downing on their atmospherically drenched Inside Llewyn Davis and seems headed for number five. With a faun sampling serenely from a country stream or a lonely tavern rising out of the wild Western wilderness, Delbonnel evokes Shane. His best shot: Monument Valley as seen through the hole in Buster Scruggs’ guitar.