Two Cents is an original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team will program films and contribute our best, most insightful, or most creative thoughts on each film using a maximum of 200 words each. Guest writers and fan comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future entries to the column. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion.
Joel and Ethan Coen have always been content to keep their heads down and never reveal too much about a given project until it is ready to be seen, but The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was an unusually mysterious prospect before finally arriving on Netflix last month. Initially billed as the Coen Brothers’ first foray into television (minus a producing-in-name-only credit on FX’s Fargo series), eager fans were surprised to learn that the series was actually a film, an anthology of Western stories with little to no (obvious) connections between those tales.
Those stories include: the eponymous Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson), a singing and dancing goof with a shocking capacity for bloodshed; “Near Algodones”, in which a cowboy (James Franco) blunders through misadventures following a failed bank robbery; “Meal Ticket”, in which an aging Impresario (Liam Neeson) and his fading, limbless Artist (Harry Melling) struggle for an audience; “All Gold Canyon”, in which a prospector (Tom Waits) toils in an idyllic valley in the hope of stumbling over fortune; “The Gal Got Rattled”; in which a withdrawn young woman (Zoe Kazan) comes into her own on a wagon train; and “The Mortal Remains”, in which two supposed bounty hunters (Brendan Gleeson, Jonjo O’Neill) explain their trade to a carriage of entranced/terrified passengers.
The stories range in length (some are in-and-out within 15 minutes, the longest stretches to around 40), tone (some are silly with notes of pitch darkness, others are bleak as midnight but shot through with silliness), and look (Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography ranges from eye-popping color and grandeur to desaturated and uncomfortably intimate). Everyone who watches the film seems to come away with a different favorite segment and different favorite character, while some (in the way of all Coen Brothers films) have rejected the film at first hand.
So what say you? Is The Ballad of Buster Scruggs a new landmark in the filmography of those ever-mischievous Coens, or is this one trick too many?
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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs deserves multiple Oscars and other awards. It was amazing. The music, color and pacing was perfectly timed to allow for feeling and connection. The characters were dirty (except for Buster of course) and alive. I was drawn into their lives only (this is a Coen Brothers film) to have them abruptly taken from me.
This film was both peaceful, tragic, wonderful and horrible all at the same time. It was hopeful yet bleak. I came away from it feeling calm and sad. At one with life and the inevitable nature of death.
I just finished and am ready to watch it again.
Lately, I’ve read a rash of comments from so-called film folks about how certain movies are “good for a Netflix movie” and it reeks of cinematic snobbery. You see, I can condone some snobbery when warranted. For instance, beer snobbery is wholly acceptable because shitty beer is… well… shitty. However, unfounded and unjust snobbery is infuriating and saying something is “good for a Netflix movie” is clearly that.
With an already strong track record, Netflix continues to fund films from a variety of great up-and-comers, but has really sought out some Hollywood heavy hitters as of late. If there is one criticism to make of the Netflix model, it may be that they give their hired guns too much control. However, it’s the freedom they give filmmakers to do what they want that attracts filmmakers and inspires incredible creativity.
While my experiences with the Coens are hit and miss, I definitely enjoyed my experience with this one — albeit distracted by chores and this busy time of year — and hope to revisit it with when I can give it true undivided attention. It has the potential of being a top 2–3 Coen film for me. (@thepaintedman)
Like any anthology, Buster Scruggs has its ups and downs, though the quality disparity is muted given that this is the Coen Bros. we are talking about and with only a couple glaring exceptions, they are as reliably terrific as any filmmaking team in the medium’s history. For me personally, I found that the James Franco episode was more of a sketch than a fully-fleshed out story, while the Zoe Kazan/wagon train one was the only story that felt poorly suited to this format: Too long to fit with the other plots, too short to fully flesh out its own. But even with these quibbles, both sequences have moments of tremendous humor (“PAN SHOT!”) and heartbreak (the ending of “Gal”) that put other feature films to shame.
And while Buster Scruggs initially seems like little more than a collection of B-sides and oddities, reflecting on the film as a whole reveals a unity of theme and cohesiveness of structure that’s slyly genius. The early stories treat death as an abstract punchline, while the middle tales begin to truly tally the weight of bloodshed and the melancholy of loss. By that final stagecoach ride through an abstract Western landscape, we’ve arrived at a world beyond our own, left to drift in the metaphysical mysteries that are so entrancing for their lack of resolution. Buster Scruggs at first struck me as something of a lark for Joel and Ethan, but I haven’t been able to shake the film since seeing it, and I imagine I’ll be rewatching individual stories, and the film entire, for years to come. (@theTrueBrendanF)
Any anthology will invariably have its ups and downs, the odd part of this one is the tonal differences across the board.
The comedic entries are a hoot. I had plenty of hearty laughs with Tim Blake Nelson’s gaudy gunslinger and James Franco’s bad-luck bandit, and the foes they encountered (among them Clancy Brown and Stephen Root).
Those good times were followed by a shift into more dramatic territory, starting with my least favorite of the bunch, the brooding tale of a limbless sideshow performer — no doubt a sober look at the plight of being disabled, but pretty damn depressing and more than a little mean-spirited.
Things take off again with the next pair of vignettes, featuring Tom Waits as a gold prospector staking his claim, and Zoe Kazan as a lonely woman who sets off on a wagon train. These were both really wonderful, fully pulling me into each story and the drama of the characters and their plot twists despite the relatively short runtimes.
The final tale isn’t so much a complete story or plot as it is simply an assemblage of characters: a handful of different (and odd) folks trapped in a stagecoach making conversation together as they make their destination: an uptight biddy, a verbose mountain man, an agreeable Frenchman, and a pair of bounty hunters. All in all, it’s a curious watch and probably good one to end with.
On the whole, taking this as a series of shorts, most of them are terrific and one was a big dud. Taken together, the tonal mishmash is a bit strange but the connective bumpers showing chapters of a book help ease the transition — and the text offers some additional insight to those who pause with cause. (@VforVashaw)
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