The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Mary Donahue strides across the prairie. Photo credit: Dana Williams

I had the wonderful good fortune to spend the past weekend in Denver, gathering with my friends to see the latest Coen brothers’ film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, at a cinema there. We were eager to watch it together on a big screen because our dear friend Mary Donahue, an art professor at a college in Nebraska, was an extra for some weeks of the movie’s filming in Nebraska last year, playing a pioneer woman in a wagon train. We watched the movie at the cinema, then went back to our Airbnb to watch Mary’s episode again on Netflix. (That’s Mary in the screen capture above. She absolutely looked the part, even though we never see her up close.)

Buster Scruggs was originally going to be a series on Netflix, but at some point the decision was made to trim each episode down and string the vignettes together into a feature film. It’s an interesting film, composed of compelling stories, but it’s far from being my favorite Coen brothers’ movie. The trailers emphasize the movie’s humorous bits, but don’t be misled: the entire enterprise’s comedy is pitch-black, and the Coen brothers’ penchant for jokey nihilism is strong throughout.

The vignettes tell the stories of a singing cowboy, an unlucky bank robber, two itinerant entertainers, a gold prospector, a young woman heading west, and four travelers on a mysterious stagecoach. The wagon train episode, called “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” is the longest and most satisfying episode, featuring gorgeous vistas of the Nebraska plains and a poignant story about the human need for connection.

The other vignettes fail to satisfy completely, although some come close. The story of the traveling entertainers, called “Meal Ticket,” is beautifully filmed and acted (by Liam Neeson and Harry Melling), but the tale seems needlessly heartbreaking. Tom Waits is wonderfully crusty as the prospector in “All Gold Canyon,” the only segment that could be said to have a positive outcome for our hero. Tim Blake Nelson is delightful as the crooning and lethal gunslinger in the opening story, but that tale is slight, bordering on silly. Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck, and Grainger Hines are all excellent in “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” especially Heck, who subtly conveys a wagon train boss’s low-key yearning to settle down into a life of contented domesticity.

The final vignette, “The Mortal Remains,” ties up the film’s existential themes of mortality with a dash of wicked comedy, and it features splendid performances by Brendan Gleeson and Jonjo O’Neill as bounty hunters who thoroughly unsettle their fellow stagecoach passengers. It boasts a haunting version of the Irish folk song “The Unfortunate Rake” (also the source of the cowboy ballad “Streets of Laredo”) and provides the film with a fittingly melancholy coda.

The film is definitely worth seeing, especially if you’re a Coen brothers fan, but for me, it won’t displace such movies as “Blood Simple,” “Raising Arizona,” “Fargo,” “The Big Lebowski,” and their version of “True Grit.”

We all love hearing stories about ourselves, so long as the people in the stories are us…but not us.

— Thigpen, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs