Six tales of good and bad luck in the old West
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring Tim Blake Nelson, Tom Waits, and Zoe Kazan
Initial Review by Jon Kissel
The good being intertwined with the bad is something each short revisits. James Franco’s bandit gets his one moment of peace before he’s executed. Zoe Kazan’s Alice shares authentic moments of understanding with Bill Heck’s Knapp before she tragically meets her end. The stagecoach passengers are regaled by Brendan Gleeson’s singing before they arrive at what is suggested to be their final destination, and Tom Waits’ good-hearted prospector, despite encountering some loathsome behavior, manages to survive. Even the ugliest story, of Liam Neeson and his actor companion, contains a level of tender charity and literary inspiration, until it no longer engages with either. It’s just too simple to chalk up The Ballad of Buster Scruggs as an exhibit to the worst of the species, because it exists next to some of the best.
While The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is lousy with great scenes and sequences, the choice to make the film as a series of short stories instead of one long one does detract. I’m always going to prefer the latter. These kinds of collections exist (Certain Women, Wild Tales) in small numbers, and my thoughts on the structure tend to stay the same. The Coens venturing into this territory allows them to fill a bingo space on their filmography and return to their pet themes, though this film is a little more optimistic than their usual baseline. Just because most of the segments end in death and murder doesn’t preclude grace. All lives end, and some of the ones that end here get a note of transcendence before the sprouting of wings and the ascent to heaven. B+