The Ballad of Buster Scruggs Review

By Matt Cunningham

On Aug. 31, 2018, Netflix released the original movie, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which is currently playing in a few select theatres and is also available on Netflix.  The film, written and directed by the Coen brothers, is an anthology of six short films that all take place in the post-Civil War settling of the West.  It features numerous A-list actors, such as Tim Blake Nelson, Bill Heck, James Franco, and Liam Neeson. The film’s message seems to be stories never die but people do. This is an intriguing thought on its own but is poorly executed in this movie.

The film’s stories never intersect at any point, as they all feel like they are their own thing. According to Rotten Tomatoes, the movie’s genre is a comedy.  When I was watching the film, it seemed as if it had no idea what it wanted to be, as the opening story presents some dark comedy, as unfunny as it may be. For example, Buster Scruggs sings a country song while he continually smacks another guy in the face with a plank until he dies. The dark comedy style is fairly common with Coen brothers’ movies.

Joel and Ethan Coen have shown to be extremely talented in the past, with such films as The Big Lebowski, True Grit, and Hail Caesar! and I’m floored at how The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a total failure. When the film is attempting to be a comedy, it is painfully unfunny, making it awkward to watch. Then, when the movie attempts to be serious, it is nearly impossible to tell whether or not they are going for dark comedy or drama. Usually, there’s at least one chuckle in a bad comedy, but this had zero laughs. Comedy is subjective, but I am struggling to find any humor in this movie.

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All six parts of the anthology have different plots, ranging from a happy-go-lucky gunslinger to a sideshow that is struggling to make enough money to live. They all feel extremely inconsequential, because the audience is given such little time to care about characters it gets to see for about 20 to 30 minutes. In terms of an overarching plot, there is none. There is an attempt to have an overarching theme, as mentioned previously, stories never die, but people do. However, this didn’t resonate with me until I saw the film’s poster.

An example of this film’s incompetence is shown in one unforgettably stupid scene. When an old man strikes gold, he goes into his hole that he dug to retrieve it. He is then snuck up on from behind and shot in the back. He lays ‘dead’ in the hole for 3 minutes, while the guy that shot him smokes a cigarette. Finally, the robber goes into the hole to retrieve the gold. Shockingly, the old man is alive and shoots the robber in the head. How was the old man able to lay there perfectly still for 3 minutes after having a bullet fly through his body?  

The actors give acceptable performances. The talents of Liam Neeson are not used in a suitable fashion, as he barely says a word in his chapter.  James Franco is trying, even though the script he has been given is pitiful. Tim Blake Nelson’s accent is grating, but at least he seems to be enjoying his role as Buster Scruggs.

The Coen brothers have made far better films that I have preferred over this. Films such as The Big Lebowski, and Suburbicon (screenplay credit) were more enjoyable than Buster Scruggs.

The most unforgiving part of this disaster is that it’s unrelentingly boring. There are drawn out sequences of people randomly singing extremely poorly. There is no explanation for this. It seems as if the only reason they had characters randomly sing was because of the movie’s unmemorable title. The movie sits at roughly two hours and 15 minutes. Double that length, and that’s how it feels to watch this atrocity.

Netflix has brought lots of strong, successful entertainment to us all over the years. Sadly, one of its newer films did not bring any whatsoever. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is 2018’s cinematic melatonin, because I felt sleepy after watching it. This is not worth anyone’s time. It takes a lot for a movie to receive this grade from a film lover, but I have to give The Ballad of Buster Scruggs a well-deserved F.   

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