Directors often get too much credit for making movies great. That’s not the case with the Coen brothers. In their latest release, their presence in the director’s chairs and behind the writing desks took what should have been a mediocre Old West anthology and made it clever enough that most viewers will enjoy it. Others, like me, will hate it despite their presence.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a Coen brothers film made for Netflix that doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is why 91% of critics reviewed it favorably on Rotten Tomatoes. But the thumbs-up/thumbs-down approach by Rotten Tomatoes makes the rating a bit misleading. Many of the “positive” reviews I read were essentially homages to the Coen brothers. There were many complaints about the six-part anthology that were followed by “… but it’s the Coen brothers, so…”
That’s the big plus in the movie. The Coens were able to tell the six stories the way only they could with such attention to detail that I almost watched it a second time even though I hated it. The critic in me detested what the movie tried to do. The fan in me loved how the Coens tried to do it.
Unfortunately, that means the only valid reason to watch it is to see the Coens do their thing. That’s enough of a reason if you’ve already seen all of their other extraordinary works. If you’ve missed any of them, I’d start there before using The Ballad of Buster Scruggs as a filler to get you through until their next masterpiece.
I normally don’t do spoilers. In fact, I make a point to not even spoil important components like mood or tone. Since this is a case where I’m not only going against the grain of other reviewers but I’m also trying to dissuade certain people from seeing it, I’ll go ahead and warn that there are spoilers ahead.
As noted already, this movie doesn’t take itself seriously. There are six completely separate stories tied together by two things: death and the historical Old West. We’ll deal with the death aspect shortly, but one good thing I can say about the movie is that I’ve never seen one capture the beauty of the period like this one. Even on a small screen, the sets are stunning. It’s a shame that such amazing cinematography will have so few see it on the big screen.
Now, let’s deal with death. It’s the overarching theme throughout, and it’s noteworthy that none of the reviews I read seemed to catch onto the specificity of the deaths. In order from first to last, the deaths are whimsical, ironic, undeserved, deserved, and tragic. This is done in a very particular order to keep the audience engaged. It’s an emotional ebb and flow that the Coens have mastered over three decades of filmmaking.
The opening story shares its title with the movie itself. It’s a live-action cartoon with stunning aspects that make the viewer laugh, marvel, and finally scratch his or her head. Buster Scruggs’ death is as quick and unexpected as the death the character dishes out throughout his story.
The second story, Near Algodones, demonstrates the inevitability of death for one who chooses a life of crime. Both times the lead character is captured and set to hang are comical and ironic, as if saying Death won’t be cheated by death. His final scene is the last real laugh we get in the movie.
As is common for the Coen brothers, there’s no attempt to ease in to a drastically changing mood. From beginning to end, Meal Ticket makes us feel melancholy and turns it up near the end of the third story. The only temporary relief is seeing an orange chicken mesmerizing a simple-minded crowd with its ability to do basic math on command, a not-so-subtle allusion to President Trump and his adoring fans.
The star of the anthology is the fourth story, All Gold Canyon, as Tom Waits delivers on multiple connections. He touches nature as both an intruder and its defender. He talks to his goal, “Mr Pocket,” like a friend about to deliver the good news of riches heading his way. The best line of the movie comes out in a dialogue between Waits and the pocket of gold when he says, “I’m old, but you’re older.” All of this combines for a deep connection we’re able to feel with his character. We may like or dislike other characters, but we actually connect with this one. Any of the stories could be fleshed out to be a standalone film, but this one would probably yield the best one.
The fifth story, The Gal Who Got Rattled, is another one that could easily expand. It made me think someone could make an interesting series about life on the Oregon Trail that followed the guides back and forth in their exciting journeys. Instead, we get a glimpse at the trail, another glimpse of irony surrounding an annoying dog that survives both of its masters, and then a fleeting glimpse of real action as Grainger Hines fearlessly takes on a group of Commanche who want his scalp and the young lady he’s protecting.
The Mortal Remains rounds out the movie. It’s the only story that doesn’t end in death, though it’s predicated by death; two of the five characters in this story are bounty hunters with the body of their most recent prey strapped to the top of the carriage they’re riding.
There are different interpretations for this segment of the movie. Some say the self proclaimed “reapers” are taking the souls of the other three passengers to their resting place. This theory lends to the apprehension and dread they demonstrate when they finally get there. Others say they simply fear that death may come to them soon, which is why they hesitate to enter the hotel. I lean towards the first interpretation. The three in the carriage with the bounty hunters/reapers died normally while the body on the roof had to be hunted down, which is why he has to be carried to his final resting place instead of walking there like the other three.
Who knows? The Coens.
The stories in this movie were accumulated over 25 years. It’s very possible that there is a much deeper underlying meaning to all of this that the Coens may or may not ever reveal. It could be personal, like their own private joke about Hollywood; watching Meal Ticket definitely lends itself to the notion that the highest level of art can’t be as popular as a counting chicken. There may be nothing to it at all. The Coens know, and unless they’re changing their style, they aren’t telling us their secrets.
An uncanny number of reviews I read noted a variation of the idea that the whole was less than the sum of the parts.
The bottom line: Lots of people loved this movie for everything the Coen brothers bring to the table. Some, like me, hated it because it’s six stories that individually could have been great but compressing them into one movie didn’t do them justice.