The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

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The Coen Brothers are back with an exciting and enjoyable anthology film that features six short Western stories that perfectly encompasses their brand of humor, irony and storytelling.

As in most of the Coen Brothers’ work, there is a tremendous cast of actors appearing in the film.  James Franco, Clancy Brown, Stephen Root, Liam Neeson, Tom Waits, Tim Blake Nelson, Zoe Kazan, Tyne Daly and a group of other recognizable Western character actors.

Each of the six stories in this anthology have different styles of a Western, starting with the Gene Autry-style parody of the good guy cowboy and ending with a stagecoach ride that sums up the entire film featuring some serious performances from Tyne Daly, Jonjo O’Neill, Brendan Gleeson and Unforgiven’s Saul Rubinek.

I really enjoyed almost all of these Western shorts.  I will say that Zoe Kazan’s “The Gal Who Got Rattled” was my least favorite and was the one where my attention was diverted the most.  Not that it was a bad short, but I just was more engaged in the other stories.

I loved the “Ballad of Buster Scruggs” story that kicked off the film.  Tim Blake Nelson came singing into the town in his white, pristine cowboy outfit only to reveal himself as one of the worst killers you would find.  The contrast was fascinating and I was also surprised when it ended when it did.  Buster had been talking to the screen and breaking the fourth wall as he went along and he felt like someone who might continue through the movie.  Nope.

Irony plays a big part in these stories, as does death.  If there is a topic that carries through the entire film, it is death.  The old west was certainly shown to be a place of death and of danger for all by the Coens.  However, there is a distinct feeling of fancy in each of the stories, albeit at different levels.

Stephen Root’s bank teller character in “Near Algodones” is a real hoot.  You can see the reaction from James Franco at the ridiculousness of Root’s responses.  One of my favorite moments was when Root came running out from behind the bank.  It was just a laugh riot.

Tom Waits’ Old Prospector character in “All Gold Canyon” was another great story, this time nearly a one man’s journey, his obsessive battle against the land and his intense desire to find gold in whatever manner he could.  The Prospector’s dialogue is very funny as he talks to himself, grumbling about the success or lack thereof.

“Meal Ticket” features Liam Neeson who owns and runs a traveling show that featured a man who has had his arms and legs amputated.  This man would vocalize famous writings and speeches for the entertainment of the crowds.  At first, he was quite the novelty, but his originality began to waver and he would soon be surpassed by the next big thing.  I think if you really want to look for hidden meaning, this one is ripe with possibilities.

If you are a fan of Westerns, this is a must see.  If you love the Coen Brothers and their past films, this is a must see.  I am not especially a fan of either of those but I found this film to be funny, dramatic and full of wonderful irony and fun.

4.6 stars

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