“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” marks the latest film by the Coen Brothers, considered by some to be the best filmmakers currently working in Hollywood.
And this movie is, like all other Coen Brothers films, strange.
Personally, I have walked away from every first viewing of a Coen Brothers film with the feeling that it was weird and I didn’t fully understand it, along with the feeling it was well made and that I wouldn’t mind watching it again. Over time, I have grown to enjoy some of their work, such as “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” “Fargo” and “The Big Lebowski.”
Is “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” a strange film? Yes.
Is it a good movie that I would watch again? Of course.
But because I’m still processing this film. My review here might feel a little incomplete.
“Buster Scruggs” is an anthology Western. Without any narration, you follow six unrelated short stories about people living in the Wild West, from prospectors and outlaws to simple settlers.
Some of these stories are comedic, some dramatic and others are a bit of both. Honestly, some of these stories are nothing alike at times. There’s the upbeat story of the title character, Buster Scruggs, a charming gunfighter who is a little too comfortable about constantly shooting people. And then there’s a slow-moving sweet one about an awkward frontier romance. You really get everything from this movie. The Coen Brothers have made movies with varying tones and “Buster Scruggs” reflects that.
Like other films they have worked on, it pays homage to classic Hollywood movies – Westerns in this case. At one point, you can tell the scenery is a movie set and the background is clearly a map painting, just like in a Western from the ‘40s and ‘50s.
Yet it’s very interesting how “Buster Scruggs” portrays the Wild West. The movie exists in an unreal atmosphere, letting you know these are just stories that probably didn’t happen. Regardless, the film allows you to feel immersed in the time period, for better or worse. For instance, there truly is no character with a modern mindset.
Meaning, when a character acts somewhat offensive, such as toward women or Native Americans, no other character with 21st-century values steps in to show them the error of their bigoted ways. To me, this feels refreshing. It’s nice that there is no character who can predict the future. Usually, especially if they are a doctor or scientist, there will be someone in a period drama who somehow has a crazy theory that will be proven correct later in time, like tobacco is bad for you or how to cure smallpox.
Honestly, this is an annoying cliche to begin with. It’s very clear that these characters are introduced just for our sake as an audience and, realistically, they probably wouldn’t exist in this certain period. After all, think about how one-day people will make movies about this time period. And think about how characters with 22nd-century mindsets are somehow going to show up. Sounds kind of annoying doesn’t it?
That said, “Buster Scruggs” does feel critical of the Wild West in its own subtle way. At moments, the violence is purposely exaggerated as if it’s satirizing the senseless bloodshed of the time and, in turn, the Western genre.
Also, certain characters are implied to be mistreated. For example, there is a woman who is treated like an idiot by her brother, and there is a man without any limbs who is treated like an attraction by a traveling showman and who may possibly have some form of mental illness. So it does respect our 21st-century mindset, just in a more thoughtful way.
The Coen Brothers are great filmmakers, but they are an acquired taste. So this movie and their other works are not for everyone. This film might not be for the casual moviegoer, but if you’re looking for something out of the ordinary that will make you think, definitely give this movie a watch.
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is available for streaming on Netflix.