The Ballad of Buster Scruggs Falls Flat

Before I get into the analysis and breakdown of this show, can we all take a second to appreciate the creative ingenuity that went into creating that title? I mean, come on it’s pretty impressive! Now that you’ve taken the time to bask in the genius that is my writing, we can get on with the review.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an anthology series written and directed by the Coen brothers (the genius minds who brought you Fargo, No Country for Old Men, True Grit, and Bridge of Spies). It covers six old Western tales that run about 20 minutes each. Since there’s six distinct and totally unrelated tales in this show, I’ll cover each of them in their own section. As always, my review will remain spoiler free cause God forbid I spoil something for you in the age of the internet and have to hear you bitch about it. 


This opening tale involves a musical and folksy gunslinger named Buster Scruggs who despite his appearance can more than handle himself against the gruff trigger-happy folks he comes across. Buster enjoys frequently looking into the camera and talking directly to the viewer. This episode is filled with humorous attempts, with only a few of them failing to hit the mark. One of the best parts is hands down the song that occurs at the end of the story, which is a beautiful duet involving Buster.


This story somewhat follows the humorous tone of the first one, but also begins to depart onto a more serious path, setting up the style of future episodes. James Franco stars as the lead character who tries to rob the wrong bank teller. A series of unfortunate events fall upon his character from start to finish, with the end being somewhat abrupt and weak.


Now we’ve gone full-blown depressive as this tale covers the unfortunate life of a limbless young man and his caretaker, who is played by Liam Neeson. These poor souls make a living going from town to town and setting up their wagon, from which the boy tells enthralling tales to an audience in exchange for financial donations. It doesn’t start off overly depressing, but at around the halfway mark it becomes clear that this story is going nowhere happy. Although it is depressing, I found this to be one of my favourite stories from the anthology.


This gets the award for most beautiful cinematography, as it takes place in a valley at the base of several mountains. A gold prospector finds the valley, and using his highly honed skills, he begins digging holes in an area that he suspects might harbour some gold. It’s a good thing that the scenery is so beautiful, because the storyline is very slow-building and in my opinion it doesn’t build up to anything important or especially interesting. 


This is the other contender for my favourite story from the anthology. It covers a young woman named Alice, played by the wonderful Zoe Kazan, and the adventures and struggles she faces as she is part of a convoy heading across the plains to a new city. Two of the main male characters are Mr. Knapp and Mr. Arthur who have very different personalities. Mr. Knapp is a very cordial man who has an affection towards Alice, whereas Mr. Arthur is an older man of very few words who seems indifferent towards everyone. The ending of this one is not at all what I expected with a surprising hero rising up.


The last story from this series dives headfirst into creepy, although it doesn’t start out that way. It starts out fairly amusing, with the dialogue among the coach passengers being the best dialogue in the entire movie by far. The tale follows five passengers who are on their way to a new town and pass the time by singing and discussing their beliefs on human nature (it’s a lot more interesting than it sounds). By the time they reach the hotel the storyline has taken a sharp turn for the creepy. 

Overall, the series is filled with both hits and misses, with an equal number of the stories falling into both categories. In my opinion, the good tales consist of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Meal Ticket, and The Gal Who Got Rattled. While Near Algodones, All Gold Canyon, and The Mortal Remains fall into the not-so-great category. I give this series 3.5 out of 5 ballads.

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