The Ballad of Buster Scruggs: Coen-esque in tone, visually mesmerizing, great in parts but not overall

A Potpourri of Vestiges Review

By Tanmay Shukla

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a Western anthology film directed by Coen brothers. The duration of each chapter varies and so does their quality. The first two chapters, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Near Algodonespay pay homage to Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West and George Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, respectively. They are thoroughly entertaining and well executed. The acting, the costumes, the set design and art work, the music by Coen brothers’ long time collaborator Carter Burwell is fantastic. Coens also use the extreme wide shots to extreme close ups taking us back to Leone’s style. The third chapter Meal Ticket is the weakest. All Gold Canyon starring Tom Waits is beautifully captured. The last two chapters, The Gal Who Got Rattled and The Mortal Remains, are most Coen-esque out of all the six.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is not the most ground-breaking Coen brothers’ film but it retains the quality which we associate with them—their magical interplay with tones—dark macabre humour, irony and biting sarcasm. Having said that, it does not belong to the same ball park as their best films like Fargo, No Country For Old Man, A Serious Man et al. Coens’ masterful direction and execution of their artistry and craftsmanship in this film is unblemished and seamless which draws our attention even when the plot plods along in some chapters. The magnificent landscape of the Wild West is beautifully captured and composed by Bruno Delbonnel. The music, editing, acting and art work—period details in costume and production is astonishingly rich and beautiful.

The six chapters are wildly different from each other which is fine. What prevents The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs from reaching the heights is that it fails to deliver on its exceptional premise and the weakest chapters are the longest which kills the pace and interest garnered by the two fascinating chapters in the beginning which raise the bar a big too high for the rest. The parts don’t blend together into a cohesive whole and only the most ardent fans of the Coen brothers will enjoy it to the fullest.

Largely, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is about death. The world of the West is dangerous and deadly and savage. The feeling of absurdity hanging over the oeuvre of Coen brothers explosively emerges (like it did in A Serious Man) in their latest film because it’s done not once or twice but six times. When it’s good, it’s rapturous. When it’s plodding, the stunning visuals and wonderful soundtrack makes sure you don’t look at your watch.

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