The Wild West. Full of outlaws, cowboys and guns, this has been a topic of many a blockbuster movie. However, Netflix’s latest release, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, is a western with a twist. Comprised of six separate stories, this movie explores many aspects of the Wild West, without just focussing on the shooting part.
The movie follows a variety of characters, as well as the titular Buster Scruggs. We see them as they begin many adventures, fight a lot of random people, and perform a lot of boring shows. With a stellar cast, a few laughs and a pair of veteran directors, this movie seems like it’s on to a winner.
As with a lot of Joel and Ethan Coen’s work, this movie is a little bit weird. Don’t get me wrong; that’s not a bad thing. It’s just always hard to know what to expect from one of their movies, and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was definitely no exception. Within the first five minutes, there have already been at least two musical numbers, both involving the deaths of some pretty big names. Granted, it was a nice contrast – the gore of the killings and the jollity of the show tunes – but it definitely was not something that would necessarily be a match made in heaven.
Yet, somehow, it works. The contrast between the saccharine songs and the gritty characters, with their questionable morals and fancy gunslinging, all crescendoes to something really quite funny. Granted, it takes a few moments to realise exactly what is going on, but regardless, this movie plays with conventions and it does it really well.
This film is actually genuinely funny, also. Sometimes the laughs it garners are just titters, but other times it is uproariously funny: something that is unexpected from a genre that is usually reserved for more serious movies.
However, humour isn’t all this film has going for it. The casting is insane, with everyone from Zoe Kazan, to James Franco, to Liam Neeson, hopping aboard the Buster Scruggs train. With a movie that is split into separate stories, it can sometimes feel as though the acting is rushed, and you don’t get to see quite enough of the big stars that are involved. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, however, is very good at showing a distinct beginning, middle, and end to each narrative, which makes it a lot easier for the audience to move on from each tale without selling them short.
As expected, the great writing facilitates some great performances, namely Buster Scruggs himself (Tim Blake Nelson) and James Franco’s character, Cowboy. Both of these characters are hilarious but in their own separate ways. This really highlights just how superior the writing is: each character, even though they are only in the movie for about 15 minutes a piece, are so well written and multi-faceted.
Buster Scruggs is polite, conscientious, and a cold-blooded killer. James Franco is gritty, highly skilled, and a bit of a heartthrob. Regardless, it’s unlikely that you would guess that both of these characters are in the same movie. The same with Liam Neeson’s character, the slimy, money-obsessed Impresario, who later throws his employee into a river so as to move onto better prospects. This movie is ridiculously scatty, but in a very good way.
However, not all stories are made equal. The final two stories, ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled’ and, the closer, ‘The Mortal Remains’, don’t quite live up to the high standards of the last four. They drag on for slightly too long, and not enough happens to warrant their running time. The penultimate tale has a very good ending, but it drags: the best thing about it is the ending itself. It brings a genuinely good movie to a disappointing end, with the closing story being, arguably, the worst of the bunch. It’s an ambiguous ending, but it doesn’t really make sense with the rest of the movie. It feels like it’s tacked on, and it’s unfortunate that it doesn’t finish as well as it starts.
So, as far as westerns go, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a thoroughly entertaining one. It’s got laughs, it’s got fighting and it’s got romance. Yes, the ending isn’t as good as it could be, but it doesn’t stop the movie from being genuinely good. As far as Netflix movies go, this is one of the better ones.