Joel and Ethan Coen write and direct witty comedies, gritty true crime stories, golden-era Hollywood vignette compilations, film noirs, pensive comi-tragedies, folk tales, trauma-inducing Cormac McCarthy adaptations, modernized Greek myths, and new era westerns, among many other particularly and impressively bent genres. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a western, but it’s not like their previous western, a remake of the John Wayne classic, True Grit (1969/2010). No, this is a shiny-shoed, sing-songy, glamorous kind of western. The kind where bullet holes end up square in the center of the dead’s forehead, everyone matches a character archetype, and our hero is a charmingly deceptive bandit with a thick drawl that you can’t help but consider a gentleman. It’s a clever delight. That is until it’s all over 18 minutes later and a completely different story in a completely different western style begins.
Many Coen brothers films take time to work their magic on you. You watch once, think it’s not worth much, but everyone keeps talking about it, so you watch again. You pick up on some of the references and quips you heard people talk about between the two viewings. It’s better the second time. You walk out lightly pleased. A year or two passes and an urge to seep in the film suddenly overwhelms you. You hadn’t realized it, but it had been creeping up on you with every new, noteworthy detail you’d heard others rave about. You desperately clear a Friday night to return to it, despite the underwhelming original viewings. Next thing you know, you’re calling it a top three Coens film.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a perfect example. People were bored, uninformed on the dense history behind the film, and disappointed. Countless people faulted the film because “nothing happens”—one of the weakest, most Blockbuster-inflated critiques someone could dish out toward a slow, thoughtful film. Yet, here we are five years later and the film is in the Criterion Collection, its soundtrack is on the shelf of every cinéphile that amasses vinyl, and it’s very chic to label as one of the Coens’ best. In other words, their films can be very subtle. Masterfully subtle. The rare kind of subtlety that only time can unveil. In recognition of that, I will brave potentially regrettable territory.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is nothing of the sort. It is a series of unaffiliated shorts brimming with bottom-feeding organisms in the Coens’ ocean of a filmography, which is full of fascinating, colorful creatures. After adding another unforgettable creature to the ocean via Tim Blake Nelson’s rave-worthy titular performance in the opening short, the film begins to tumble in quality. Not filmmaking quality, of course. This is still a Coen brothers film. Casting is on point, performances are at least good, cinematography is striking, direction is reputable. To their technical credit, each short embodies a completely different set of characters, circumstances, and styles in the Wild West. But, after we leave Buster, we might as well leave the film.
The Coens are known as savvy storytellers. They’re known for their ability to grip us—whether dramatically in No Country for Old Men, hysterically in Raising Arizona, or delicately in A Serious Man—but Buster Scruggs (the project as a whole, not the only worthwhile short within) lacks grip almost as much as it lacks subtlety. There are six stories in total. The five not mentioned consist of a failed bank robber, a traveling roadshow plagued by dying interest, an old gold-panner, a migration to Oregon, and a wagon car full of dialoguing strangers, all of which, at best, elicit a tired chuckle or brief, sad sigh, and are as void of entertainment as they are of significance.
For example, one, in particular, comes across as a belabored tr*mp metaphor that is repetitive enough to be studio-contrived, but empty enough to be a student film—the worst of both worlds. The rest aren’t so awful. At a minimum, they are all mildly engaging. But that comes primarily from the Coens’ technical craft. In the end, they only ever string you along. If this were another director’s project, I’d probably be raving about the performances and top-tier filmmaking, and suggest a pairing with a more inspired screenwriter next go-around. But top-tier filmmaking is a given for the Coens. At this point, their most significant artistic competitors and comparatives are their past selves. In that light, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a disappointment because you’re left knowing it was capable of so much more.
It’s as if they tease us with the nominal, introductory short, reminding us how great they are only to hope the next five will skate by on an assumption of that reputation. Liam Neeson, James Franco, Zoe Kazan, Tom Waits, Stephen Root, Brendan Gleeson, Bill Heck, and the others may deliver beautiful performances, but their performances fall victim to what seems like carelessness on the Coens’ part—a routine filmmaking stint that, despite its surface-level originality, lingers with the monotony of having simply gone through the motions, as if the Coens made this for an intro to filmmaking class to familiarize novice filmmakers with a variety of wondrous stylistic approaches to a western without concerning themselves with the actual substance of the stories. Sure, there’s a thematic through-line, but if it weren’t the Coens, would anyone care? Would we focus entirely on theme in lieu of valid criticisms? Would we actually go out of our way to praise the application of a commonplace literary device?
Like I said, this is dangerous territory. It’s not dangerous because I’m brave or because I’m willing to share a dissenting opinion or some haughty shit like that. It’s dangerous because it very well might be foolish. Most people who heavily criticize a Coens film upon first watch usually end up kicking themselves, biting their tongue, and, especially if they wrote about it, desperately wishing they hadn’t after they revisit the film. But, this is genuinely how the film came across. In a post-NYFF-screening Q&A, the yawning, disinterested Coens reinforced my suspicions when they mentioned that they wrote the shorts over a period of 25 years and never intended on filming them. Hell, even they originally thought they weren’t worth making. What more proof do we need? Whatever the case, critical reception has been positive thus far, and that fares poorly for me. Here’s to hoping I’m not frantically trying to erase this piece from FSR history in six months.