Normally when I pick films to view down here at LFF, I discriminate based on two factors: is it coming out within the next two months, and will it play near me? The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a Western anthology and the latest by Joel and Ethan Coen, fails both of those two questions mightily – it opens on November 2nd and is a Netflix Original so I don’t have to travel anywhere to see it – but the idea of watching an all-new Coen Brothers film on anything less than the biggest cinema screen available is heathen talk to me. So, there I rocked up at 8:30 in the goddamned AM for my latest fix.
My resultant exhaustion can only partly be blamed on the lack of sleep. When Buster Scruggs was first announced, it was done so as a “Limited Anthology Series” comprised of six different stories told across six episodes, but at some point down the line it instead got reworked into a film that runs just over two hours. The Coens emphatically denied the notion that Buster Scruggs was supposed to be a television series after the film played the New York Film Festival earlier in the month, but the finished product I feel betrays such a narrative. This really does feel like a television series that was chopped down to fit a not-unreasonable running time, although it only becomes fully apparent as we get deeper into the collection, the most developed stories being saved for the back-half. Binging all six of these at once is very much akin to binging a Netflix series, despite thankfully being A LOT shorter than even two episodes of most Netflix shows, and whilst some maniacs have the temperament for such a task, I found myself checking my watch numerous times which is a foreign action for a Coen Brothers film.
Perhaps it’s better to treat the shorts like one would a television series, watch one and then take a break before returning later to digest another episode, but I have a feeling Buster Scruggs would still fall victim to the typical wobbling quality of most anthology films. The opener follows the titular Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Robinson), a singing cowboy in the vein of Roy Rogers who parades his merry way across a farcical version of the Wild West as, effectively, Bugs Bunny. The second shuttles a wannabe bank robber (James Franco) through a humiliating conga-line of indignities as a sort of microcosm for the vast majority of the Coens’ filmography. The third focuses on an impresario (Liam Neeson) and his armless, legless “meal ticket” (Harry Melling) that gives the segment its name as the latter performs dramatic readings to dwindling audiences, in an effective gothic short film.
The fourth sees a prospector (Tom Waits) mining for gold in a plain untouched by humans and ends up being a better adaptation of The Lombax than the actual Lombax movie. The fifth, longest and most developed takes us to the Oregon Trail as a young woman (Zoe Kazan) is forced to commit to her useless brother’s latest hare-brained scheme due to lack of better options once he contracts cholera and dies. Lastly, five travellers – a mouthy trapper (Chelcie Ross), a judgemental religious fundamentalist (Tyne Daly), a Frenchman (Saul Rubinek), and a pair of bounty hunters (Jonjo O’Neill and Brendan Gleeson) – share a ride on a stagecoach that doesn’t stop in a segment which honestly feels like the prologue to a Hammer horror movie. Besides being Western-set and all of them deliberately ending unsatisfactorily (a certain subset of audience members are about to get rapid-fire No Country for Old Men flashbacks viewing this), what predominately connects the six shorts that all differ wildly in length and tone is the theme of the violent cruelty of the Old West. That your life can and will end at any minute in any way for any reason and if your fellow man doesn’t do you in, this period of history being an especially fertile breeding ground for the worst of human behaviour, then the uncaring merciless random bastardry of the universe will probably take care of that for them.
Even in the more serious or tonally adventurous shorts, Buster Scruggs is largely six different takes on the prevailing philosophy the Coens put forward with their underappreciated A Serious Man from 2009 (my personal favourite Coen film). It’s just a shame that the combined issues of a wavering level of quality in the shorts – the first and fourth ones are superb, the sixth feels like it ends just as it’s getting good, the fifth’s too long, and the second and third are a bit undercooked – and shotgunning them all together makes experiencing Buster Scruggs in its supposed intended form a bit of a slog. There’s a lot of fun here, and low-tier Coen Brothers is still leagues above the best works of a good 80% of other directors, but I just can’t fathom why this HAD to be a movie. In certain respects it’s a retread of material the Brothers have covered better before, in other respects their experiments can feel half-cocked. But sometimes, it hits just right and that magic makes itself known with a vengeance. A grand bar-filled singalong celebrating the gruesome murder of a patron, a thrilling hopeless-seeming shootout with a Comanche war party, the surprisingly delightful Tom Waits performance that causes the fourth segment to soar so high, literal gallows humour. Buster Scruggs really does satisfy, but reorient your expectations going in, and maybe ignore the intended viewing method too.